Airlines were accused of price gouging before Irma. Some are capping fares before Maria

Thousands of travelers pack Miami International Airport as they wait in line to leave Miami ahead of Hurricane Irma on Thursday, September 7, 2017.
Thousands of travelers pack Miami International Airport as they wait in line to leave Miami ahead of Hurricane Irma on Thursday, September 7, 2017.

Taking a page from Hurricane Irma’s book, Florida Sen. Bill Nelson is asking airlines to proactively limit the cost of their flights for travelers trying to get out of Hurricane Maria’s path.

And airlines are agreeing.

On Monday, Nelson sent a letter to CEOs at 10 major U.S. airlines asking them to regulate the prices of their flights to areas that will likely be impacted by Maria — and to do it earlier than they did in the case of Hurricane Irma earlier this month.

Prior to Hurricane Irma making landfall in Florida, airline fares skyrocketed into the thousands of dollars due to a spike in demand, a regular practice for last-minute tickets that nevertheless had frantic travelers claiming price gouging. Eventually, some airlines started capping flights out of Florida at $99, but not until after the outcry.

In his letter, Nelson, the ranking member of the Senate’s Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, thanked airlines who ultimately capped their flights, but encouraged them to do so sooner with the case of Category 5 Maria, which is on track to hit the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico.

American Airlines, United Airlines and Delta Air Lines have imposed caps to flights from Puerto Rico ahead of Hurricane Maria.

“I urge you to begin the process now for implementing capped airfare and ensuring that refunds are promptly issued for canceled flights. I also request that your policies on capped airfare be communicated clearly and in writing so that affected residents can evacuate quickly and safely,” he wrote. “Individuals and families should not be forced to delay or cancel their evacuation efforts because of confusion over the cost of airfare.”

A group of Venezuelans were stranded at Miami International Airport after Santa Barbara Airlines canceled all scheduled flights from Friday, Sept. 8, 2017 to Tuesday, Sept. 12, 2017, due to Hurricane Irma.

Nelson’s letter was sent to American Airlines, United Airlines, Delta Air Lines, JetBlue Airways, Southwest Airlines, Spirit Airlines, Alaska Airlines, Hawaiian Airlines, Frontier Airlines and Allegiant Air.

By Tuesday afternoon, Nelson’s office had received three responses.

American Airlines would cap nonstop, one-way fares at $99 for the main cabin and $199 for the premium cabins through Sunday from the following cities:

▪ Antigua, Antigua

▪ Cap-Haitien, Haiti

▪ Port-au-Prince, Haiti

▪ Providenciales, Turks and Caicos Islands

▪ Puerto Plata, Dominican Republic

▪ Punta Cana, Dominican Republic

▪ San Juan, Puerto Rico

▪ Santiago, Dominican Republic

▪ Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic

▪ St. Croix Island, U.S. Virgin Islands

▪ St. Kitts, Saint Kitts and Nevis

▪ St. Thomas Island, U.S. Virgin Islands

United Airlines is also capping fares at $384 — plus tax — for nonstop flights in economy class from Aguadilla and San Juan, Puerto Rico through Sunday.

The airline is also moving to larger aircrafts on departures from Puerto Rico, beginning with a 1:53 a.m. flight that left Tuesday from Aguadilla to Newark, New Jersey. The airline has added capacity on three departures out of San Juan on Tuesday, plus an extra flight from San Juan departing at 3:30 p.m. Tuesday.

In total, United added nearly 500 seats for departures from Puerto Rico.

United plans to suspend operations in San Juan and Aguadilla on Wednesday with a tentative plan to reopen Thursday depending on infrastructure assessments at the two airports. As the storm moves northwest, the airline said it will develop plans to adjust operations Thursday in Punta Cana and Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic.

Delta Air Lines is capping one-way, nonstop fares in the main cabin at $199 for flights departing San Juan, Punta Cana, Santiago (in the Dominican Republic) and Santo Domingo through Sept. 21. The airline is also temporarily waiving baggage and pet in cabin fees for passengers traveling to and from San Juan, Key West, St. Maarten, Turks and Caicos, St. Thomas and St. Croix.

Delta was adding three additional flights from San Juan to its hubs in Atlanta and New York Tuesday.

The airline plans to start flights to St. Thomas and Puerto Rico again Thursday after the storm’s passage, dependent on the extent of infrastructure damage.

Chabeli Herrera: 305-376-3730, @ChabeliH