Miami, Florida will be the first major U.S. city hit by Hurricane Irma. Major airlines are cashing in, but at least one significantly cut its fares after we talked to them.
Irma is currently bearing down on the Leeward Islands, with the U.S. and British Virgin Islands bearing the brunt of the category 5 hurricane –and strongest storm ever recorded in the Atlantic — along with Puerto Rico. It’s expected to hit Cuba on Saturday as a category 4 storm, and the Southern tip of Florida on Sunday as a category 3 hurricane. Florida Governor Rick Scott has already declared a state of emergency in all 67 counties and has temporarily eliminated tolls on major highways to expedite the evacuation process. Several counties have already ordered mandatory evacuations for all residents.
Any category 3 or higher classification qualifies a storm as a “major hurricane,” according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA):
However, residents who are choosing to flee the state entirely for a hurricane-free part of the country will have to pony up the equivalent of a month’s rent or more for even just a one-way ticket.
As of 2 PM Eastern Wednesday afternoon, the three largest domestic airlines that fly out of Miami — American, Delta, and United Airlines — are charging anywhere from $600 to $2000 for a one-way, coach ticket to major West Coast airports like Los Angeles (LAX), Phoenix (PHX), and Santa Ana (SNA). It’s important to note that state price gouging laws only cover “essential items,” like bottled water and gasoline, and not airline tickets. All of the below screenshots are for tickets departing on Friday, September 8, before Irma reaches the Florida Keys.
Delta’s fare prices from Miami to Santa Ana were particularly high, according to a post from Twitter user @xfilestrustno1, who tweeted a screenshot of fares that appeared to be from Delta’s mobile website showing flights from Miami to Santa Ana ranging from $624 to $1,503 at 8:22 AM Wednesday morning.
Another tweet from @LeighDow showed that the cost of a Delta flight from Miami to Phoenix changed from $547.50 to $3258.50 — nearly septupling in price. The steep price change was also tweeted by James Wieland, a meteorologist for a South Florida NBC affiliate. Neither person who posted the screenshots responded to a request for comment.
“Price gouging in Florida, in lieu of Hurricane Irma,” the original post read.
“Anyone want a plane ticket for $3200 bucks to Phoenix?” Wieland tweeted.
Price gouging in Florida, in lieu of Hurricane Irma. pic.twitter.com/yofPmgdpCx
— Truth Seeker (@xfilestrustno1) September 6, 2017
— Leigh (@LeighDow) September 5, 2017
— James Wieland (@SurfnWeatherman) September 6, 2017
In an Instagram post from Dania Beach mayor (and former WNBA star) Tamara James Wednesday morning at approximately 8:30 AM, Delta flights from Fort Lauderdale, Florida to Atlanta, Georgia (Delta’s hub) were priced between $1,220 and $1,346 on a travel app comparing airfares.
“mannnnn this HAS TO BE ILLEGAL!” Mayor James wrote.
In a phone interview, Delta spokesman Anthony Black told Grit Post that the high prices were likely due to cheaper fare classes being unavailable due to the increase in demand, comparing fare classes to different qualities of sliced bread at a grocery store.
“Whatever we offer, people are either buying them, which means the fare class is gone,” Black said, clarifying that the tweet showing @LeighDow’s steep price hike was from travel app Expedia, and not directly from Delta’s website. “You’re either gonna have the big tier or the higher ones that are left.”
Black was quick to add that Delta was working to add more seats by utilizing bigger aircraft in the affected areas, and by offering more flights out of affected areas in order to accommodate people trying to evacuate.
“If you were following what we did during [Hurricane] Harvey, we did the exact same thing,” Black told Grit Post. “We have not raised any of fares in respect to the approach of the storm… We’ve actually maintained our fares to not allow them to naturally follow the path that they would from a purchasing pattern.”
Following Grit Post’s interview with Black, Delta flights from Miami to Phoenix and Santa Ana were noticeably cheaper at approximately 1:30 PM Wednesday afternoon than the screenshots posted from Delta’s website on Wednesday morning. And at approximately 4:30 PM Eastern, flights from Fort Lauderdale to Atlanta were priced at just $201.20 and $263.20 for coach tickets.
“It is against our values as well as our policies to use any lever under our control to increase prices related to incidents like Hurricane Irma,” Sarah Gavin, Expedia’s vice president of global communications, told Grit Post in an email.
Spokespeople for American Airlines and United Airlines have not yet responded to interview requests as of this writing. However, American’s media relations department sent an auto response to Grit Post saying they had issued a travel alert for approximately 30 airports in the area, and would “wind down” operations at its Miami hub on Friday afternoon.
(UPDATE 7:07 PM ET): This article was amended to include a statement from Expedia.
Carl Gibson is a politics contributor for Grit Post. His work has previously been published in The Guardian, The Washington Post, The Houston Chronicle, Al-Jazeera America, and NPR, among others. Follow him on Twitter @crgibs or send him an email at carl at gritpost dot com.