Casper’s international airport intrigues eclipse chasers

Technicians for Atlantic Aviation fuel a small personal aircraft before a 2012 flight at Casper-Natrona International Airport. The airport has received an influx of requests for service from people planning to fly their private aircraft into Casper to view the solar eclipse in August. Dan Cepeda / Casper Star-Tribune

CASPER, Wyo. — What ties South Africa, the Bahamas, Indonesia and Saudi Arabia to Casper?

People and companies from those and 14 other countries have all inquired with the U.S. Customs office in Casper about flying private jets to Natrona County during the eclipse festival in August.

“The eclipse is a Super Bowl-type event,” said Glenn Januska, director of the Casper-Natrona County International Airport.

Customs and Border Protection officer Dale Leatham said he couldn’t provide many details but confirmed he has fielded calls from interested parties around the world.

“They’ve called me and inquired about coming in and whether I’d be available,” Leatham said. “I’ve told them that I am.”

Leatham said he’s the only immigration officer in Wyoming and the ability of international jetsetters to fly straight to Casper may give the town a leg up on other communities along the route of the total solar eclipse taking place Aug. 21.

Five international airports sit within the limit lines of the eclipse that viewers must be within to witness the spectacle. But Natrona County’s is the only one that sits on the central path, offering the longest eclipse duration.

Weather permitting, foreign visitors could witness the full magnitude of the eclipse from the tarmac.

Wyoming Eclipse Festival director Anna Wilcox, of course, hopes that wealthy visitors leave their private jets at the airport and experience Casper.

Simple roots

“Look away from the billionaire and consider just the international traveler,” Wilcox said. “The Wyoming culture is totally foreign.”

With that in mind, the eclipse festival’s relatively humble setting — compared with all the destinations available to someone with cash and jet fuel to burn — may actually be a selling point.

As an example, Wilcox offered the Japanese tour guides who came last summer to scout eclipse viewing locations.

Wilcox showed them half a dozen beautiful Casper vistas before realizing what the guides were really hunting for.

“They wanted to view out in a pasture so they could get covered wagon rides when it was over,” she said.

Wilcox said several tour operators in Casper would showcase Wyoming’s pioneer past during the eclipse festival.

Morris Carter, who owns Historic Trails West, said many foreign visitors flock to the state for exactly that experience.

“Wyoming is still considered the Old West in lots of other counties because of the movies they see,” Carter said.

Visitors may appreciate that Casper doesn’t have a fleet of Lincoln Town Cars waiting to whisk them from the airport to a penthouse suite at a downtown hotel.

In fact, some expect just the opposite.

“I’ve had people ask if I was going to pick them up at the airport with my stagecoach or my covered wagon,” Carter said.

He acknowledges many, though not all, of those inquiries were meant as jokes. But it speaks to a selling point for the region.

The Wyoming Office of Tourism highlights the state’s desolation on its website, asking alongside a photo of the night sky: “Four-star accommodations? Try four million.”

Of course, Wyoming is already known as a place to come for stunning nature — though more tourists visit Jackson and Teton County than Casper. Some of the private jet owners, in fact, may be looking to stop in Casper to clear immigration, then fly on to western Wyoming.

Yet Wilcox is ready with an explanation of why Casper is the superior destination.

While the city may not have national parks in its backyard, it has something precious in its own right: fewer crowds and a more relaxed atmosphere.

“You’re not on top of each other and in each other’s armpits,” she said. “You’ve got the mountain and you’ve got fishing and you’ve got all those different options, but it’s at a different pace.”

A unique challenge

Whatever the private jet crowd does or doesn’t do in Casper isn’t much of a concern for Januska, the airport director. While he’s happy to offer orientation materials at the airport, his focus is on logistics.

“We’re making sure we can process the aircraft, have a place to park them, secure them, a place to get the passengers off,” he said. “That’s what we have to do. Everything else are things we’d like to do.”

Must-do’s also include ensuring there’s enough gas on hand — different planes take different kinds of jet fuel — and arranging landing times.

Januska said the airport was also reaching out to commercial airlines Delta and United, which offer regular service to Casper from Salt Lake City and Denver, to let them know more passengers may be booking flights for the eclipse weekend.

But even if they know what’s coming, the commercial carriers may not do much differently.

While they have the option of offering more flights or using larger planes for the existing flights, Januska noted that they’d likely need to fly empty planes up and back.

Because most people will be arriving on the Friday or Saturday of the eclipse weekend and leaving Monday or Tuesday, after the eclipse, planes might need to arrive full and leave empty and then arrive empty and leave full.

“The airplane that brings them in isn’t going to sit there for three days waiting,” he said — and flying empty planes is costly for the airline.

The other challenge is that the eclipse is a one-off event. Casper has annual events that may attract more air travelers and airlines can plan accordingly, by incrementally boosting the number of seats available for a given weekend each year.

That’s not true for the eclipse. Once the weekend arrives and the airlines discover what the demand is, it’ll be too late.

“There’s nothing you can learn from it,” he said. “The next eclipse isn’t going to be over Casper.”

This article originally published in the Casper Star-Tribune.