Million Air is whisking customers to remote airports where the moon will totally block the sun's rays for a time on Aug. 21. Passengers will watch from lawn chairs near the wings of the plane while an astronomer offers expert commentary and views of solar flares through a telescope.
"Our idea is that, instead of tailgating at a ballgame, we're going to wing-gate under the path of total eclipse," said Roger Woolsey, chief executive officer of the Houston-based company. "We'll load the jet up like a pickup truck, with the picnic baskets and the Dom Perignon and the snacks."
The flights reflect the solar show's bonanza for private-plane operators, which is on a par with major holidays and sporting events. The Federal Aviation Administration is putting up temporary air-traffic control centers in Oregon, where the total eclipse will begin over the U.S. as it sweeps toward South Carolina along a 70-mile band. Jackson Hole, Wyoming, a hot location for the luxury-jet set that's in the path, is out of aircraft parking spots.
"The magnitude has a Super Bowl feel," said Brad Stewart, CEO of XOJet, which owns a fleet of 41 aircraft. "The idea of the eclipse has captured the imagination."
The coast-to-coast total solar eclipse, a phenomenon that last occurred 99 years ago, is giving an extra boost to a private-jet charter industry that already enjoyed a 6.7 percent increase in charter activity in July from a year earlier. XOJet, based in Brisbane, California, will handle about 60 flights to eclipse areas, Stewart said.
At Jet Linx, bookings to see the eclipse began a couple of months ago after a customer broached the idea, Chief Executive Officer Jamie Walker, said. Now the Omaha, Nebraska-based company has 16 flights planned. The average cost to rent out a light jet is about $4,000 an hour and $8,000 for a heavy jet such as a Gulfstream 450, Walker said.
NetJets, the private-jet company owned by Warren Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway Inc., has about 500 bookings to and from the eclipse zones. That puts demand on par with the busiest holiday times around Thanksgiving and Christmas, Kristyn Wilson, a spokeswoman for the company, said in an email.
Commercial carriers are also getting into the mix. Alaska Air Group Inc. is operating a charter flight that takes off from Portland, Oregon, for select astronomy enthusiasts and eclipse chasers. Southwest Airlines Co. is providing special viewing glasses and offering "cosmic cocktails" on flights most likely to experience the eclipse's maximum effects.
Pilots flying during the event will have to keep an eye out for about 100 high-altitude balloons that students in coordination with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration will launch to capture live footage of the eclipse, the FAA said.
People outside the path of totality will still be able to see dramatic partial eclipses with no help from private-jet operators charging thousands of dollars. But the fever to pack up the family and fly off to a place in the path of complete darkness has been increasing as the natural phenomenon nears, said Ron Silverman, U.S. president for VistaJet in New York.
"The biggest challenge right now is finding an airport that we can get into," Silverman said.
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