Several airlines capped fares out of Florida this week, a move that comes amid social media complaints about “fare gouging.”
As those complaints mounted – unfounded, airlines and analysts say – many carriers made adjustments to their pricing for the few Florida flights that still had seats ahead of Hurricane Irma.
JetBlue capped fares at $99 one-way for non-stop flights to or from Florida. JetBlue’s connecting flights were capped at $159 one-way for travel through Sept. 13. JetBlue’s special fares also applied several of its Caribbean destinations.
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“We want those trying to leave ahead of the hurricane to focus on their safe evacuation rather than worry about the cost of flights,” JetBlue spokesman Philip Stewart said in a statement to the Miami Herald.
American also capped fares in its economy cabin at $99 one way, good for single-leg, one-way flights out of Florida bought by Sunday for travel through Sept. 13.
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Delta, meanwhile, made a similar move. It pledged it would cap all of its fares – including for first-class seats – at no more than $399 for flights to or from South Florida through Sept. 13.
“Delta 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,” the carrier said in a statement.
Most big airlines have also added additional flights or “up-gauged” to bigger aircraft on existing flights to help people in the region get out of Irma’s way.
The moves come after fliers flooded social media with complaints about “price gouging.” Many posted images of exorbitant fares for flights to domestic destinations that usually are relatively inexpensive.
Despite the sticker shock, however, both airlines and analysts say the higher fares were not the result of gouging.
Instead, they say it was triggered by the sudden rush on flights as people began to mobilize ahead of Irma.
Typically, airlines will set aside “buckets” of cheap fares on all their flights. But, as those buckets sell out — which they’ve done quickly ahead of Irma — only high-priced buckets remain. As a flight nears capacity, normally the only fares left are from a high-fare bucket that’s typically targeted toward business travelers. Such travelers tend not to balk at last-minute “walk-up” fares that can run $1,000 or more – even for domestic flights.
But those fares are shocking when encountered by routine travelers, especially when they’re trying to flee from the path of a potentially devastating hurricane. In a normal situation, leisure fliers encountering such a fare would typically just search for a lower fare on another date and travel then. But with Irma bearing down on Florida, that’s not an option for those trying to head elsewhere.
“You have this, very likely unprecedented, surge in demand right at a time when airlines are reducing their schedule” after Labor Day, said Seth Kaplan, managing partner at the trade publication Airline Weekly. “People just snapped up seats at fares that turned out to be rather low and the airlines systems reacted as they always would and those last seats cost a lot.”
It’s not price gouging, Kaplan said. “It’s just that there aren’t enough seats.”
“(L)ast-minute fares are often more expensive in general,” added Georgia Hobica founder of Airfarewatchdog, echoing Kaplan’s explanation.
“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. If there’s any gouge, it’s just the last minute walk-up airfares that are designed for desperate business fliers,” Hobica said.
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