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Airlines are capping prices for last-minute flights out of Florida, but travelers can't count on snaring a seat before carriers cease operations ahead of the storm's arrival.
Consumers took to social media this week to complain about price gouging out of Florida ahead of the Category 5 storm — showing screenshots of examples, such as a $1,738 United flight between Miami and Indianapolis and a $2,370 American flight between Miami and Los Angeles. The latest forecasts project the "potentially catastrophic" storm could make landfall in south Florida this weekend.
Airfare experts say the price changes aren't an attempt by the airlines to capitalize on desperate travelers, but rather, an unfortunate combination of regular airline practices that penalize last-minute bookings. (Although that's still cold comfort for anyone trying to evade Hurricane Irma.)
"I don't think they're gouging," said George Hobica, publisher of travel site AirfareWatchdog.com. "Especially in this day and age, where social media can be so cruel, an airline isn't going to take a chance on that."
Airlines often set up fare structures so that pricing jumps 21, 14 and three days out from departure to capitalize on last-minute business travelers, said Alex Chang, a data scientist for fare-tracking site Hopper. Floridians looking to get out ahead of Irma are in that window.
Airlines also price seats in a variety of ticket classes, and the least expensive ones typically sell out first.
"Prices overall will go up, simply because of how they're structured," Chang said. "Because people want to get out, suddenly there are no more seats or only expensive seats left."
Officials at airlines say they are taking steps to add capacity or lower prices. Most have also issued waivers to help travelers change plans.
In a statement, industry group Airlines for America said its member airlines — which include American, JetBlue, Southwest and United, among others — "are working around the clock to accommodate customers."
"Some carriers serving the impacted areas are adding flights and temporarily reducing or capping fares out of cities in the path of Hurricane Irma," according to the statement.
In an emailed statement to CNBC, an American Airlines spokeswoman said the airline has added flights and shifted to larger aircraft when possible. The airline has also capped its fares.
"While there are limited seats remaining before the storm hits, we will cap our pretax fares at $99 for Main Cabin seats on direct, single-leg flights out of Florida for tickets sold through Sunday, Sept. 10, for travel until Sept. 13," according to the statement.
JetBlue announced Wednesday that it would cap fares for one-way direct flights in select markets that still have seat availability. Those reduced fares run $99 to $159, including taxes, a spokesman said in an emailed statement to CNBC.
"We have added flights to our schedule out of select cities where we have aircraft available," according to JetBlue's statement.
In an emailed statement, a United spokesman said the airline was sold out for Thursday and Friday but has added six new flights out of Florida. Fares for those flights are all capped at $399.
In an emailed statement, Delta said it has capped one-way fares for flights to and from southern Florida at $399 through Sept. 13.
Delta announced Thursday afternoon that it had added 2,000 seats "to airports along Irma's path to help customers evacuate." It also said it would waive all baggage and pet in-cabin fees for travelers flying to or from cities covered by the weather waiver.
Finding a reasonably priced ticket likely won't be easy, given rising demand, limited capacity and a dwindling time frame as the storm approaches. Don't wait any longer to look or book, Chang said.
"The closer you are, the fewer options you have," he said.
Flexibility is key, Hobica said. Cast a wide net on departure airports, airlines and destinations, he said. Price out both one-way and round-trip tickets, and play with the return dates if you opt for the latter.
If you don't have a specific destination in mind beyond "away from Irma," consider looking at fare sites like Hipmunk or Kayak that can search for the best deals out of your home airport.
One area to be picky: Timing. Booking a weekend flight could backfire, Chang said.
"Flights are probably going to be canceled on Saturday or Sunday, whenever the hurricane makes landfall," he said.
Travelers who already booked a pricey fare ahead of airline fare-cap announcements should reach out to see if the airline will adjust their fare, said Patrick Surry, chief data scientist at Hopper. This is an unusual event for the airlines, he said, so it's worth asking to see if they will accommodate you.