Flights to escape Irma skyrocket to $3K

By Chabeli Herrera / Miami Herald

MIAMI — Miami native Lissette Diaz is frantically trying to fly her family out from South Florida in case Hurricane Irma hits. But it may cost her thousands of dollars.

By Wednesday, prices for flights out of South Florida skyrocketed as high as more than $3,000 per person for domestic flights that would otherwise cost a fraction of the price during what’s typically one of the slowest times of the year for air travel.

Diaz, who grew up in Miami but is in school at Andrews University in Michigan, scoured Expedia.com Tuesday afternoon for a flight for her mother, adult cousin, 71-year-old grandmother, 11-year-old sister to New York.

There was only one option left: A Wednesday Delta Air Lines flight from Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport to John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York with one stop. The price was $1,318.80 per person.

“I’ve been searching for a few hours now on Expedia and other travel sites and it’s been actually impossible,” Diaz said Tuesday. “I’m scared for them.”

The 22-year-old occupational therapy student was one of many frustrated travelers trying to book a flight from South Florida Tuesday as news of Irma’s strengthening into a Category 5 hurricane sent ripples of fear through the region. Gov. Rick Scott declared a state of emergency. Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez announced evacuations may begin soon.

In Florida, price gouging is illegal following a declared state of emergency. However, airlines are regulated by the Federal Aviation Administration and the U.S. Department of Transportation and are not subject to Florida’s price gouging statute.

Attorney General Pam Bondi has activated a price gouging hotline for consumers who believe they have been victims of unlawful hikes. Bondi’s office said via a statement that it is “receiving complaints about airline tickets and making phone calls to airlines requesting voluntary compliance.”

On Twitter, travelers aired out their struggles finding flights for a reasonable price — or any flight at all.

The Category 5 storm is expected to bring strong storm surges. Part of the Bahamas and Turks and Caicos is under a hurricane warning.

“Totally unacceptable, a $358 flight from Miami to NYC went up to $3578. Why should expect anything decent from these airlines???,” tweeted user joerileyhudson.

Antonio Mercurius was on the lucky few. On Monday, he got a flight from Miami to Washington, D.C. for Thursday before the frenzy began for $225.

When he looked at the flights again on Tuesday, they had risen to $1,900 per person.

“Why is there no emergency evacuation cost? I understand supply and demand but the laws of capitalism should not operate in the times of catastrophic danger. What happens to the people that can’t afford flights now?” said Mercurius, a health science and African-American studies student at the University of Miami.

But the laws of supply and demand apply in hurricanes as they do year round and the hefty price tags aren’t unusual for last-minute tickets, said Seth Kaplan, managing partner at trade publication Airline Weekly. Prices can change dramatically when tickets are purchased less than three days before departure.

“The situation is that there just aren’t enough seats for everyone who wants to fly,” Kaplan said. “What we’re seeing, with the very expensive fares for the few seats that remain, is just their standard pricing for any flight anywhere that’s in high demand. … It basically becomes an auction for the few seats that remain.”

Kaplan said it’s clear airlines aren’t price gouging because most flights are completely sold out. Without a way to anticipate a storm, the airlines didn’t start charging higher prices until the last second — as they would with any last minute seats.

“The fact that everything was gone so quickly tells me that (not having time to react and adjust anything manually) airlines were selling seats rather inexpensively, so most of the seats were quickly gone … and then yes, you’ll see that last seat selling for a crazy price,” Kaplan said.

Also not helping? Fewer flights this week compared to last week, a holiday weekend. According to airline data provider Diio Mi there are 10 percent fewer seats at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport and 4 percent fewer seats at Miami International Airport this Thursday compared to last Thursday.

“Obviously not what airlines would have planned, had they known!” Kaplan said.

Airlines have insisted they are not trying to price gouge travelers.

“We have not changed our fare structures, and, in fact have added capacity to help get customers out of the affected areas,” said American Airlines spokeswoman Katie Cody in a statement.

The airline has added several extra flights — from St. Maarten, St. Kitts, Providenciales, Turks and Caicos; and San Juan, Puerto Rico — and moved to larger aircrafts on some flights, including one from Miami to Philadelphia Wednesday. As of Tuesday night, American had 33 airports — including Miami, Fort Lauderdale, Fort Myers, Key West, Palm Beach and Sarasota — in its waiver program for flights affected by the storm through Sept. 12.

Delta also has a waiver program in effect through Sept. 15.

“Customers are encouraged to visit delta.com or reach out to Delta direction via our reservations line where they will find the best fares,” said spokesman Michael Thomas in a statement.

Kaplan said airlines make more money when they can add a lot of extra flights, just as they add extra flights for the Super Bowl and other high profile events. The influx of new flights lowers the average fares and is a profitable exercise for the lines. But, with an event as unpredictable as a storm, it’s hard for lines to add a large volume of flights.

“Like most businesses, they’re always trying to get people to pay as much as they’re willing to pay,” Kaplan said. “It’s just that usually, for most people who are able to plan in advance when they travel, that dollar amount is much lower.”

Still, the oversized price tags have left travelers like Diaz’s family with a slimming list of options. Unable to pay the steep costs, Diaz said Tuesday evening that the family was instad considering $60 per person Megabus tickets to Orlando, where other family members live.

Diaz said her family was in South Florida when Hurricane Andrew barreled through the region in 1992 as a Category 5 storm — the same Irma was as of Tuesday.

“They don’t want to go through that again,” Diaz said. “We stayed for Katrina and Wilma (in 2005) and got hit pretty bad, (so) we’re not taking our chances. My grandma has a heart condition and is diabetic. If she needs medical attention and things go south for us we need a hospital to be accessible.”

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