Airlines brace for Hurricane Dorian as storm threatens to snarl Labor Day weekend travel

Key Points
  • Hurricane Dorian is expected to strengthen before making landfall in Florida on Monday, during the busy Labor Day weekend.
  • American and Southwest are allowing travelers to change their Florida flights ahead of the storm.
  • The storm could bring top winds of 130 miles per hour, NOAA says.
Florida residents prepare for Hurricane Dorian as storm strengthens

Hurricane Dorian is strengthening and is forecast to hit Florida as a Category 4 storm, threatening to derail travel during the busy Labor Day weekend.

Dorian is projected to make landfall in Florida with winds reaching 130 miles per hour, according to the National Hurricane Center. The air traffic control tower at Miami International Airport will close if sustained wind speeds reach 55 miles per hour, said airport spokesman Greg Chin.

American Airlines on Thursday said travelers booked Sept. 2-3 to or from 13 Florida airports, from Key West to Gainesville and including its Miami hub, can change their tickets without paying a fee or difference in fare if they can travel as late as Sept. 10.

Spirit Airlines and JetBlue Airways issued similar waivers for several Florida airports, including Orlando, Fort Lauderdale, and Jacksonville.

Southwest Airlines doesn't charge a flat fee for flight changes, but it won't make passengers who want to change their flights pay for the fare difference if they can fly within two weeks of their original travel date. The policy applies to passengers with tickets to or from six Florida airports from Aug. 31 to Sept. 4. Delta Air Lines, which also has fee waivers in place for travel throughout Florida this weekend, said it added capacity of 930 seats to the southeastern U.S. ahead of the storm.

Delta said it capped fares for nonstop economy cabin flights out of Florida that range from about $300 and $600, depending on the length of the flight, but a recent search showed many flights from Florida cities over the weekend were already sold out. American also capped nonstop fares out of some Florida airports. Connecting flights were higher.

The airlines weren't canceling Florida flights yet because the path of the storm is still unclear.

"The risk of devastating hurricane-force winds along the Florida east coast and peninsula late this weekend and early next week continues to increase, although it is too soon to determine where the strongest winds will occur," the National Hurricane Center said in a forecast on Thursday.

Airlines generally relocate as many of their aircraft from airports in the path of storms as possible and cancel large parts of their schedules so that crews and aircraft are in place to resume operations after the storm has passed.

Dorian's potential to disrupt Labor Day weekend travel is a challenge for American and Southwest, both of which have weathered a difficult summer despite strong demand. The two airlines have faced capacity constraints as the Boeing 737 Max grounding, now in its sixth month, has forced them to cancel thousands of flights during the busiest travel period of the year, driving up costs and denting profits.

Boeing has yet to provide federal regulators with its final software fixes for the planes, which regulators grounded worldwide in March following two fatal crashes within five months of one another.

Between Aug. 28 and Sept. 3, U.S. airlines will carry a record 17.5 million passengers, a 4% increase from last year, Airlines for America, an industry group, forecast last week.

Southwest to cease operations at Newark Airport in November