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Airlines race to get as many flights as possible out of Irma's path before a wave of cancellations

  • Airlines are scrambling to get as many passengers out of Irma's path as possible.
  • More than 1,000 flights have been cancelled through Saturday in main South Florida airports.
  • Carriers are expected to cancel more flights.
  • Airlines want to avoid passengers and planes being stranded in hurricane-hit airports.

The exact path of the deadly Category 5 Hurricane Irma is still unknown, but carriers have already cancelled more than 1,000 flights at major South Florida airports alone.

According to Flight Award, including those flights, some 4,000 flights have been cancelled in Irma's path.

Several airlines have capped fares for passengers trying to leave the area, but seats are hard to come by. United Airlines, Delta Air Lines and American Airlines said they have added flights to help get passengers out of the storm's path but will wind down operations at South Florida airports as early as Friday afternoon.

That shutdown is likely to drive up the number of cancellations significantly, according to Flight Aware, which tracks airline flights. More than 11,000 flights were cancelled in Houston due to Hurricane Harvey, according to a Flight Aware tally. United was particularly hard-hit, because of its hub in Houston, and the city bore the brunt of the storm.

Airlines' decision to cancel flights days before a storm strikes and even for the days after it moves out of the area might seem like an added stress for travelers, but it's by design.

Public image is part of the reason.

"They feel like they'll get fewer complaints if they pre-emptively cancel flights," said George Hobica, founder of Airfarewatchdog.com, which tracks airfares. "It's better to have people at home, rather than at the airport. It's certainly bad for publicity when you're showing lines of stranded passengers, when you have passengers on cots."

Airlines also need to ensure that their expensive planes — new Boeing 737s cost more than $100 million — are in other cities, out of harm's way.

They also need to position their crew out of the stalled airport and in cities where flights can resume once airports are reopened.

A spokesman for Miami International Airport said the airport will not close but noted that it is not a shelter so an influx of stranded people could stretch basic services. Even if the main terminals are open, the air traffic control tower will order planes to stop operating if winds reach sustained speeds of 55 miles per hour.

U.S. airlines remaining after a wave of megamergers over the past decade have left travelers with fewer options, even though these airlines have, as a result, larger fleets and access to more hubs to reposition aircraft in the event of a storm.

The exact cost of cancelling a flight varies depending on the size of the aircraft, number of crew members and number of paying passengers. United said on Wednesday that Hurricane Harvey likely contributed to a $400 million hit to sales this quarter.

WATCH: Airlines prepare for Irma