Airlines Mark Down Tickets in Irma-Affected Areas Following Complaints

Airlines capped prices on tickets departing from much of Florida and the Caribbean, after customers complained that seats on the few flights that remained this week ahead of Hurricane Irma were far more expensive than usual.

Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D.,Conn.) and Sen. Edward Markey (D., Mass.) asked Transportation Secretary

Elaine Chao

to monitor airlines after the storm passes to make sure they don’t try “to make a dime off disaster.”

“Price-gouging practices can take root during emergencies,” they wrote to Ms. Chao.

American Airlines Group
Inc.,

which has suspended operations at several Florida airports, capped fares at $99 one-way, and $199 for first class, on all flights in and out of about 50 airports—including some in the Caribbean– affected by the storm. The lower fares now apply through Sept. 17, including tickets for passengers returning to the affected airports this weekend.

JetBlue Airways
Corp.

,

Delta Air Lines
Inc.

and

United Continental Holdings
Inc.

also lowered prices on the few seats remaining on their flights out of the region. United on Wednesday added extra flights from Florida at a maximum of $399 one-way and quickly sold every seat, the carrier said.

Airline computer systems automatically extract a premium from last-minute bookers, often business travelers who need to get somewhere at any price. Such algorithms can open the airlines to accusations of opportunism in a crisis. Earlier last week, some flights out of Florida, were priced at nearly $1,000 one way. First-class prices were nearly double that.

“I don’t think airlines would be callous or stupid enough to be consciously jacking up fares,” said George Hobica, a consumer advocate at SmarterTravel.com. “It’s just the computer programs doing what they do when it’s last minute and seats are scarce.”

JetBlue was the first on Wednesday to cap fares at $99 one-way from a number of airports in the Caribbean and Florida and at $159 for connecting flights from Florida. Those tickets were snapped up quickly, and other carriers introduced similar caps

Now many airports in the storm’s potential path are closed or airlines there have suspended service, including Miami, Daytona Beach, Fort Lauderdale, Fort Myers, Melbourne, Key West, Orlando, Palm Beach and Sarasota.

Write to Susan Carey at [email protected]

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