Image-conscious airlines extend fare caps for travelers in Irma's wake

Key Points
  • Passengers complained of sky-high fares ahead of Irma.
  • American and Delta will keep their fare caps until at least Sept. 17.
  • Lawmakers have asked Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao to investigate gouging concerns.
Empty runways and gates are see at Miami International Airport after Hurricane Irma strikes Florida, in Miami, September 11, 2017.
Carlos Barria | Reuters

If there's one thing airlines learned this year, it's how quickly outrage on social media can spiral into a public relations crisis.

Travelers last week took to Twitter to complain about sky-high airfares they found while trying to escape Hurricane Irma. Several lawmakers asked Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao to look into consumers' complaints of price gouging.

While these fares were not unheard of for last-minute travel and scarce seats, airlines quickly announced they would cap fares for those in dozens of cities affected by the powerful storm.

Carriers have extended those fare caps for travel back to the region for as late as next Monday, a move that could help limit further social media outcry, something the airlines have become all too familiar with this year.

In April, a passenger was violently dragged off a United flight to make room for commuting crew, and a public relations firestorm ensued. Its competitors Delta and American also faced outrage on social media after other incidents with passengers.

American is offering fares at a maximum of $99 for one-way, economy-class tickets to cities in Florida, and from Charleston, Hilton Head and Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, as well as Savannah, Georgia.

Competitor 's $99 cap on one-way, nonstop fares for travel from several Florida and South Carolina airports, will last until Sept. 18. Delta's fare cap of $399 for flights to and from Florida is in place until Sept. 17.

The reduced fares won't make everybody happy. Irma grounded more than 14,000 flights and shut large airports. It was particularly painful for airlines and travelers alike because it hit carriers in their hubs, such as American's in Miami and Delta's in Atlanta.

Getting back up and running is slow going. Miami International Airport, Florida's largest airport, suffered water damage. The airport usually handles about 1,100 flights a day. Airlines are deploying larger aircraft and flying crew to reopened hubs to get as many passengers out of the area as possible.