US airlines, under fire from people trying to get flights out of southern Florida ahead of Hurricane Irma and seeing high fares, are putting caps on one-way direct fares for travel out of the state.

Many people took to social media complaining of price gouging by US airlines as they scrambled to get out of the path of Irma, a category 5 hurricane that has already caused extensive destruction in the Caribbean. Early news images from the island of St Martin, which took a direct hit, show extensive damage at Princess Juliana International Airport, St Maarten—the Dutch side of the French/Dutch island.

Florida state law prohibits extreme increases in the price of essential commodities, such as food, water and gasoline, but airlines are not covered under the law because they are regulated by FAA and the US Department of Transportation.

Some people seeking to fly out of Florida have posted images of fare offerings for the few seats left this week that are $1,000 or higher.

US airlines serving Florida have explained that the extreme prices are for the last remaining seats on otherwise fully-booked flights, with the pricing representing an auction for those last few seats on an in-demand flight. But they are also now accelerating efforts to meet the demand to evacuate the state and putting caps on one-way fares.

Atlanta-based Delta Air Lines has added flights and upsized aircraft on flights out of Miami, Palm Beach, Fort Lauderdale and Key West to Atlanta. The airline has also issued travel waivers to passengers already booked to fly to southern Florida and the Caribbean during the timeframe of the hurricane’s impact. Delta has capped one-way fares at $399 for flights to and from southern Florida through Sept. 13. The carrier said it has been examining and adjusting fares in Florida since early this week, when Irma's path became apparent and demand to fly out of the area surged. 

In a posting on its website, Delta quoted San Francisco-based travel industry analyst Henry Harteveld’s explanation that airline pricing practices are based on many factors, including supply and demand. 

"There's only so much airline capacity to any destination. When bad weather hits, there's typically a surge of last-minute demand. Normally, these last-minute fares may be expensive,” Harteveld said. “[But] when bad weather may affect a city or region, an airline can make more last-minute, lower-fare seats available to help people who need to travel find and get an affordable fare." 

American Airlines, United Airlines, JetBlue Airways, Frontier Airlines, Spirit Airlines and Southwest Airlines have all issued travel/rebooking fee waivers in advance of the storm, and both American and JetBlue issued a $99 cap on one-way direct airfares out of Florida Sept 6. JetBlue capped its connecting flights from Florida at $159. Additionally, JetBlue is offering $99 fares for one-way flights out of Savannah, Georgia; Charleston, South Carolina; Nassau, Bahamas and several Caribbean locations, including Cuba.

But time is running short and airline seats are selling out. As of 11 a.m. EST Sept 7, Irma is just north of the Dominican Republic and will begin to strike the Bahamas Sept. 8 and move on to Miami Sept. 10, unless the hurricane changes course.

American said it plans to cease operations in Miami, Fort Lauderdale, West Palm Beach and Fort Myers Friday afternoon. JetBlue has preemptively canceled 878 flights through Monday Sept. 11. Similarly, beginning Friday night, Southwest will cancel all flights to/from Fort Lauderdale, Fort Myers and West Palm Beach through Saturday.

The US Transportation Security Administration (TSA), meanwhile, is staging some 250 personnel at southeast airports to be deployed to Florida for assistance with airport security after Hurricane Irma moves through the region. These TSA employees have volunteered to assist with Florida airport security operations on reopening, the agency said.

Members of what TSA calls Transportation Security Support Teams—small teams of TSOs who deploy to an airport in need to provide additional support—have departed  for Florida.

“We are actively engaged in preparing for Hurricane Irma and its impact. We have begun to move TSA personnel into that area of the country so that we will have people in place to provide security screening when the airlines and airports are ready to resume service after the storm passes,” TSA administrator David Pekoske said.

Mark Nensel