What is the Deal with Hurricanes and Airline Price Gouging?

Ludovica Gardani – Trying to buy a ticket for a flight out of Miami in the days before Hurricane Irma hit was a real mission. All the tickets either rapidly sold-out or were extremely expensive.

On Expedia, flights from Miami to Phoenix ranged from $547.50 to $3,258.50, but the lowest tickets had the added bonus of having layovers of over 10 hours (can you pick up on the sarcasm?).

The scenario repeated itself in Puerto Rico, as Hurricane Maria approached the island. Tickets from San Juan to Miami skyrocketed to above $1,000 each. It is a cost of over $4,000 to ensure that a family of four gets a flight out of the storm path and survives.

Twitter and Facebook became platforms for people to document their frustration and disbelief with screenshots of the exorbitant prices of tickets. The public accused airlines of price gouging, specifically Delta and United Airlines.

Spokesmen for the airlines went from denying price gouging to blaming other platforms, such as Expedia, for not being responsive to the adoption of caps to their fares. Other airline responses were more technical. Airline computer programs use algorithms that consider demand and supply to automatically set fares. The algorithms also combine scarcity of seats with the last-minute request for the booking to set fares.

This means that when large amounts of people are trying to book last minute flights, for example, when a catastrophic Hurricane is headed for a large metropolitan area, the demand for tickets rapidly increases. Therefore, due to the limited number of seats and flights available, the prices rapidly increase.

The Federal Aviation Administration and the U.S. Department of Transportation is usually responsible for regulating price gouging. Several complaints of price gouging had already been received by the U.S Department of Transportation the week before Hurricane Irma. Then, during the Hurricane, Florida Attorney General, Pam Bondi, opened a hotline to report all types of price gouging, including airfare.

There is a blurry line between the legal increase of prices caused by simple supply and demand and the illegal practice of price gouging. The airlines algorithm, which combines the inevitability of tickets selling out due to high and last-minute demand, contributes to airline independence to decide their own fares.

Florida’s price-gouging laws apply to necessities such as water, food, and gas, but they do not apply to airlines. The non-application of these laws to airlines seems questionable when, in the event of a Hurricane approaching Florida, millions of people are trying to evacuate and only two main highways are available. Catching a flight turns out to be one of the last feasible options to evacuate and flight tickets may then become necessities when there are so many lives at stake.

Social Media may be the answer that effectuated real change in airlines fare decisions during Hurricanes Irma and Maria. Social media publically shammed airlines into finally offering price caps on flights to and from the affected areas. Airlines capped their fares for fixed dates, specific routes, and typology of tickets. Both JetBlue and American Airlines capped one-way and non-stop flights to and from Florida at $99 until September 13th. Delta and United Airlines both capped their fares at $399 for any flight to or from South Florida.

But what can we do, legally, to ensure this never happens again? The Federal Government should implement more regulations. It should give guidelines to airlines for extraordinary emergency circumstances that protect costumers who are just trying to reach safety before a catastrophic Hurricane wreaks havoc on their home town.

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