Hurricane

Did airlines handle Irma — and the fare hikes it created — as well as they could?

Thousands of travelers pack into Miami International Airport as they wait in line to leave Miami on Thursday, Sept. 7 ahead of Hurricane Irma.
Thousands of travelers pack into Miami International Airport as they wait in line to leave Miami on Thursday, Sept. 7 ahead of Hurricane Irma. cmguerrero@elnuevoherald.com

The economics of the airline business dominated the conversation around Hurricane Irma.

What was price gouging? What was simple supply and demand? And possibly more difficult to answer, what responsibility, if any, do airlines have to lower their prices in the face of a natural disaster?

With thousands of people clamoring to leave South Florida, and the number of flight cancellations rising daily as the storm approached, the airlines’ systems reacted as they usually do for last-minute seats: By raising prices. Demand was up and supply was down.

“I genuinely believe their systems do what they do,” said Seth Kaplan, managing partner at trade publication Airline Weekly.“There is some consumer psychology to people getting really angry about those $3,000 seats and you can understand it. It is distasteful.”

But fare hikes, whether as a result of automatic computer adjustments or not, enraged travelers who claimed airlines were price gouging. Screenshots of $1,000-plus airline tickets populated Twitter — and in many ways overshadowed other efforts airlines were making.

Overall, airlines generally remained communicative with passengers, added flights when possible and loosened their regulations with change fee waivers and other incentives. After the passage of the storm, they flew numerous relief flights.

The fares, though, left a bad taste in the mouths of travelers who said airlines should have a larger responsibility to be proactive about adjusting their computer systems during a state of emergency to prevent unusually high fares.

Sen. Bill Nelson, who called for airlines to instate caps before Hurricane Maria and is the ranking member of the Senate’s Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, is considering the possibility of requiring airlines to cap fees when a major storm is approaching. No formal regulations have been proposed yet.

It might not completely solve the problem though, said George Hobica, founder of Airfarewatchdog.com.

“If you do lower fares, they get gobbled up even by people who aren’t in a dire situation and, people who have hardships, there won’t be any seats for them,” Hobica said.

One potential middle ground: Instate caps that are not $99, like the ones American and JetBlue Airways eventually put in place for Irma, but higher. Delta, for instance, used caps that ran from $199 to $499 depending on the flight and seat.

“That’s the kind of price where people have to think about it but it actually exists,” Kaplan said.

Below is the Miami Herald analysis on how the airlines responded to Irma in three major categories: communication, execution and relief.

Communication response: Good.

Airlines in general all provided up-to-date and frequent communication on modifications to their schedules, canceled flights, and fee waivers for customers impacted by storms. Most were active on Twitter responding to customers who had questions, or often, gripes.

Execution response: Mixed depending on the situation.

In terms of overall airport operations, most airlines added flights where they could or moved to larger planes in order to try to accommodate the surge in demand to leave South Florida pre-Irma.

American Airlines alone added 23 flights from Sept. 6 to 8 to evacuate people from Florida. But the airline also had the most logistical challenges of any airline during Irma. That’s because American was managing a network of thousands of flights and hundreds of daily cancellations in Miami, where it has a major hub, and the Caribbean, where it has a large presence.

And while none of the other airlines seemed to have the issues of staffing and last-minute cancellations that American had, American was also dealing with the added challenge of thousands of Miami employees who were either evacuating their families or preparing for the storm.

The issue boiled over on Sept. 7, when Miami Beach Commissioner Ricky Arriola took to Facebook to complain that, due to crew shortages, the airline had canceled his girlfriend’s flight last-minute out of Miami with the couple’s 9-month-old son. Their baggage, and that of other travelers stuck at the airport, would remain there until after the storm’s passage.

To ameliorate the situation and prevent further cancellations, American brought in additional staff from its headquarters in Dallas/Fort Worth to assist with shortages in cabin crew and other areas.

But the biggest challenge in Irma, across airlines, were fares.

In the days leading up to the storm, as evacuations were ordered across South Florida, fares skyrocketed and travelers started claiming the airlines were price gouging. The steep ticket prices were a result of a spike in demand and not price gouging, experts said, but the usual price increases that result from purchasing a ticket last-minute.

Nevertheless, the uproar was loud — and clear. JetBlue and then American capped their fares at about $99 out of Florida beginning Sept. 6. Delta followed shortly thereafter with a $399 cap. But by then, the backlash had been brutal.

“I suspect that they’ve learned some lessons and it will happen in a more orderly way going forward,” Kaplan said.



Relief response: Good.

Nearly every airline participated in offering relief flights to the Caribbean following the passage of Irma.

In a partnership with the American Red Cross, American awarded miles for donations to hurricane relief. JetBlue provided 20 food trucks of free, hot meals at the BB&T Center in Sunrise for residents displaced by Irma and first responders. Delta Air Lines donated $1 million to the Red Cross for Hurricane Irma relief efforts.

“I think they did the best they could under the circumstances,” Hobica said.

Chabeli Herrera: 305-376-3730, @ChabeliH

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