Several airlines instituted price caps on flights out of Florida after being accused online of gouging prices in advance of Hurricane Irma making landfall in the state.
As recently as 7 September 2017, people in Miami -- which is projected to be in the path of the storm center -- reported seeing exorbitant prices on travel booking websites.
Earlier on in the day, our own search for flights out of Miami on the website Kayak.com (a third-party site that lists prices available through travel retailers) showed United Airlines flights leaving the city on 8 September 2017 to Los Angeles and returning three days later priced as high as $2,014:
However, those flights were no longer listed by the evening. United spokesperson Frank Benenati told us that while the airline typically only has 12 flights out of Miami per day (compared to more than 400 out of Texas, parts of which suffered extreme damage from Hurricane Harvey earlier in the month), it added six one-way flights out of Miami and Ft. Lauderdale "to get more folks out" and capped the price for each at $399.
Another exhorbitant listing posted online -- which has also been corrected -- showed a United flight from Miami to Atlanta on 7 September costing just over $6,300. Benenati called that post "a glitch in the computer":
We flew one of our international wide-body jets down to Florida, a plane that doesn't typically do that route. The system kind of had a little glitch on one of the seats and someone saw that and thought that those were the prices for all of the seats, which wasn't true. The second we saw it online we fixed it.
Delta Airlines was also criticized in a widely-distributed tweet on 5 September 2017 that included a picture of a flight from Miami to Phoenix, Arizona priced at $3,258.00:
After the image was shared more than 39,000 times on Twitter, the poster praised the airline in a follow-up tweet:
— Leigh (@LeighDow) September 5, 2017
However, on 7 September, we found Delta flights to Newark International Airport in New Jersey for the same dates at just under $2,000:
In each case, those prices were not listed on Kayak by that evening.
As the New York Times reported, those costly airfares may simply have been standard high-priced, last-minute fares that were only noticed due to the imminent arrival of a hurricane, not a deliberate attempt to price- gouge persons fleeing the storm:
The optics aren’t good for an industry that has had plenty of bad press recently, but the price increases causing the most recent public relations nightmare might just be business as usual.
“Sure, some are high, but last-minute fares are often more expensive in general,” George Hobica, the founder of AirfareWatchdog.com, wrote in an email. “I don’t think airlines would be callous or stupid enough to be consciously jacking up fares.”
Airfare data by Hopper shows that the price hikes that took place this past week are similar to those from two weeks ago, suggesting that the price changes are typical for a week of departure flights.
“If there’s any gouge, it’s just the last minute walk-up airfares that are designed for desperate business fliers,” Mr. Hobica said. “It’s just the computer programs doing what they do when it’s last minute and seats are scarce.”
Delta also released a statement on the controversy, saying that they would be capping fares for south Florida flights:
Delta has capped one-way fares in all cabins at $399 for flights to and from southern 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.
Two other airlines, JetBlue and American Airlines, also instituted their own price caps for people looking to escape Irma as the hurricane headed toward Florida. The storm's approach came less than a month after Hurricane Harvey caused widespread damage in southeast Texas.
Irma could also be followed soon by two other hurricanes, Jose and Katia. The sudden spate of potentially damaging storms, Benenati said, represents "a new dynamic" for United to contend with:
I think that Harvey and now Irma are not putting to the test what Mother Nature can do and the airlines will have to do as best they can in the situation that's presented to them.
State Attorney General Pam Bondi has instituted a hotline for consumers to call if they suspected they were the victims of price-gouging. However, the state law against the practice only covers "essential items," and not airline prices. An official with the Department of Transportation, which has jurisdiction over the issue, told us that the agency is currently evaluating complaints from areas affected by both Irma and Harvey.
A spokesperson for Bondi's office, Kylie Mason, told us that more than 2,000 complaints about alleged price-gouging had been reported as of 7 September 2017. She added:
We are receiving complaints about airline tickets and have been in contact with airlines to request voluntary compliance.
Hurricane Irma, which has already killed at least 10 people, is projected to hit Florida's southern region on 10 September 2017. Gov. Rick Scott (R) declared a state of emergency and as of press time, more than 650,000 residents of Miami-Dade County had been ordered to evacuate.