As Hurricane Irma barrels toward Florida, people concerned about loved ones, including elderly parents, and Floridians wanting to get out of the storm's way have scrambled to book flights and change itineraries to leave sooner.
But there's a catch-22: Thanks to people booking at the last minute, and with only a limited number of flights, ticket prices for the few remaining seats surged, leading to accusations of price gouging. Posts on Twitter the last few days complained that remaining seats on some carriers cost as much as $3,000.
Was it intentional price gouging, or supply and demand?
Airlines insist that they did not intentionally raise ticket prices. Indeed, some carriers have added flights.
After reports on social media of $3,000 one-way fares, American and JetBlue capped direct one-way tickets out of South Florida at $99. Delta Air Lines capped one-way fares at $399, and waived baggage and pet in-cabin fees.
Usually, airfares change constantly, even several times a day, depending on how full the plane is. "Most seats sold out rather inexpensively very quickly," said Seth Kaplan, managing partner at Airline Weekly. "Then there were a few seats left, and those seats were going for crazy prices.
"Airlines felt shamed into capping the fares, but then the remaining seats were nearly immediately gone," Kaplan said. "It was like winning the lottery to try to get one. People told me there were a few $99 seats on JetBlue from Fort Lauderdale to Philadelphia, but then they were gone. The bottom line is: You can't get a seat and the reason is there aren't enough seats for everyone who wants to travel."
Whether it was the fresh images of the devastation caused by Hurricane Harvey, or social media reports whipping up a frenzy, or the potential of a direct hit by 185-mph winds, many Florida residents are trying to get out of Dodge.
American Airlines, which operates hubs in Philadelphia and Miami, said it will wind down operations Friday afternoon in South Florida and has canceled all flights over the weekend out of Miami, Fort Lauderdale, Fort Myers, and West Palm Beach.
Flights scheduled to arrive in Miami on Friday from Europe and South America on American have also been canceled. American's last departure Friday from Miami International Airport will be at 3:49 p.m. for Dallas-Fort Worth. The last flight out of Orlando will be at 2 p.m. Saturday.
American said that it added 16 flights and more than 3,600 seats from Miami on Thursday: 12 to Dallas-Fort Worth, one to Philadelphia, and three to New York. The airline said availability on the flights was "extremely limited."
Southwest Airlines canceled flights to and from South Florida from Friday night through at least Saturday, and also canceled flights to Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, the Bahamas, and Cuba.
Delta said Thursday that it had upsized aircraft and added flights at airports in Punta Cana, Nassau, Freeport, Key West, Miami, Fort Lauderdale, Sarasota, and Orlando — in all, more than 2,000 seats along Irma's path.
George Hobica, founder of airfarewatchdog.com, said that even Wednesday he found some low last-minute fares out of South Florida. He agreed that some fares were high. "But last-minute fares are often more expensive in general. I don't think airlines would be callous or stupid enough to be consciously jacking up fares.
"It's just the computer programs doing what they do when it's last minute and seats are scarce," Hobica said. "If there's any gouge, it's just the last-minute walk-up fares that are designed for desperate business fliers."
Due to the storm, American has issued a travel alert for more than 40 airports that may be affected by Irma, allowing customers to rebook without change fees. Other airlines also waived change fees and are allowing travelers to reschedule.
The timing of Hurricane Irma comes as airlines, after Labor Day, traditionally reduce their supply of seats. "This is supposed to be the low season. Instead, there is some of the highest demand they have ever seen," Kaplan said.
"We are offering additional flights out of Florida, yesterday and today, to help more customers," United spokesman Charles Hobart said. "We've also taken steps to reduce those fares beyond what a regular last-minute fare would be." United expanded its travel waiver to include more cities and dates, which can be found at united.com, he said.
Meanwhile, airlines are on the clock to get their planes safely out of Florida on Friday. United plans to suspend its Florida flights at 4:30 p.m. local time through the weekend.
"If an airline knows that a big event is coming — the Super Bowl is in town — they will add flights," Kaplan said. "The same thing for holiday travel. The [algorithm] systems did what they were supposed to do.