Airlines have canceled more than 1,100 flights scheduled for Thursday and Friday in the Carolinas and Virginia as Hurricane Florence bears down on the East Coast with 100 mph winds.
The Category 2 hurricane could bring more than 2 feet of rainfall along the North Carolina coast and in northeastern South Carolina that would produce "catastrophic flash flooding," the National Hurricane Center warned.
Charleston International Airport closed Wednesday night and will remain shut until at least Friday, a spokeswoman said. Operations were also suspended at a dozen other airports in the region. Southwest Airlines will stop flying out of Charlotte Douglas International Airport on Thursday through at least Friday night. American Airlines canceled more than 800 flights in and out of the region through Sunday, but said it did not expect the storm to cause it to cancel flights in its Charlotte hub.
American, Delta Air Lines, JetBlue Airways and United Airlines said they capped some airfares at levels below what last-minute tickets would cost. Airlines were criticized on social media last year when fares soared ahead of storms. Last-minute fares generally spike during periods of high demand and airlines have to change prices manually for events like a large storm.
Carriers are also waiving fees for changing flights, baggage and for in-cabin pets for travelers who could be affected by the storm. Delta said it added about 1,000 seats to its service to the Carolinas ahead of Florence
Charlotte airport said its staff on Wednesday checked emergency equipment and supplies like backup power and storm drains.
Airlines generally offer waivers and cancel flights ahead of time so travelers are not stranded at the airport and crews are not out of place when operations resume. They will also routinely keep aircraft away from affected airports.
Constant high wind of at least 41 mph can prevent Federal Aviation Administration staff from servicing radar and radio towers, so some systems could be shut down pre-emptively, the agency said.
Flight disruptions could continue after the storm has passed. The FAA said it could restrict air traffic, including passenger flights, to clear airspace for emergency flights.
Other companies with employees in evacuation zones were also preparing for the storm. Boeing, for example, said it flew some of its 787 wide-body jets from its factory in Charleston on Tuesday to Seattle to keep them out of the storm's path. It also suspended operations in Charleston as staff were evacuated ahead of the the hurricane.
Delta is monitoring the weakening storm closely because the National Hurricane Center expects it to move west, which could bring high wind and rain to its home in Atlanta, the world's busiest airport. Cancellations of just over 1,000 are small compared with the more than 20,000 flights that were called off during three devastating hurricanes last year — Harvey, Irma and Maria, which hit major airlines in their hubs.