Is a $786 one-way flight out of Puerto Rico price gouging? Airlines say no – Miami Herald

When singer Ricky Martin tweeted a screenshot of $2,000-plus fares from San Juan, Puerto Rico, to Miami, he added his voice to the chorus that sings whenever a natural disaster, frustrated travelers and the economics of airline pricing come together.

Their anthem? “Price Gouging.”

“THIS IS NOT RIGHT,” Martin tweeted, all caps. “WE ARE IN THE MIDDLE OF A HUMANITARIAN CRISIS. THERE SHOULD BE LAWS AGAINST THIS.”

The tweet, posted Monday at 12:47 p.m., had earned more than 13,000 “likes” and more than 6,300 retweets 24 hours later. The protest closely mirrored another in the days before Hurricane Irma hit Florida, when comedian Chelsea Handler tweeted a screenshot of a $3,258.50 Delta Air Lines flight from Miami to Phoenix, calling on a boycott of the airline — albeit with more colorful language than Martin.

Before Hurricane Irma, the complaints of price gouging were enough to push airlines to cap their fares, beginning with JetBlue, but only after a few days of angry tweets. Before Hurricane Maria, the lines seemed to want to get ahead of the uproar, capping flights early in the storm’s progress.

But for those trying to get out of Puerto Rico after Maria, the caps, which change often and include a number of restrictions, haven’t been enough to ameliorate the frustration passengers feel.

Screenshots of higher-than-normal fares from San Juan to the mainland United States still proliferate on social media. In their replies, airlines try to soothe griping passengers.

If you’re trying to find a flight out of Puerto Rico, put on that patience hat. Below are some of your price gouging questions answered, and tips for finding affordable flights.

Why are flights out of regions hit by hurricanes so expensive before or after the passage of the storm?

Last-minute flights in general, whether from areas hit by a storm or not, are expensive. It’s simple supply and demand. A day or two before a flight is scheduled to leave, very few, if any, seats remain. Those seats sell for much steeper prices than usual.

Most travelers trying to catch flights out of a region in a storm’s path were trying to snag those few remaining seats, and because of that, the prices were high.

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Miami Herald reporter Patricia Mazzei and photojournalist Carl Juste boarded one of the earliest flights out of San Juan flying back to Miami on Sunday, Sept. 24, 2017. Mazzei recaps her reporting since Hurricane Maria devastated the U.S. territory.

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What airlines have introduced caps for Maria?

Related stories from Miami Herald

▪ American Airlines has capped one-way nonstop fares to and from San Juan at $99 for the main cabin and $199 for premium cabins beginning early last week. The caps in Puerto Rico run through Oct. 8.

▪ JetBlue Airways has capped non-stop flights to and from Puerto Rico at $135 through Oct. 31. Non-stop JetBlue flights to and from Puerto Rico will be capped at $199 from Oct. 8 through Nov. 15. The first round of caps went into effect early last week as well.

▪ Delta Air Lines capped non-stop flights to and from San Juan at $199 for the main cabin and $399 for first class through Oct. 9. Itineraries that include a connecting flight are capped at $299 for the main cabin and $499 for first class.

Where should I go to make sure I get a capped or affordable flight to or from Puerto Rico?

Go directly to the airline website because there may be a delay in the time changes to price structures reach booking engines, such as Expedia.

If you’re still seeing steep prices, contact the airline directly. American Airlines says it will work with passengers to issue refunds if a purchased flight doesn’t qualify for a cap.

But, if caps don’t apply for the dates you are traveling and prices are still steep, it means there are few seats remaining on that plane. Try searching for flights for a later date.

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Why, despite caps, do I still find listed prices that are sometimes 10 times higher than the cap?

It all comes down to reading the fine print.

JetBlue and American, for example, are only offering caps for one-way, non-stop fares. Flights that include connections are not subject to caps.

Pay close attention to the date range on a cap. While that range may be extended later, it only applies to the current range at the time of purchase.

Additionally, the time range for a fare cap changes often and is entirely dependent on the date you purchase your ticket.

For example, Palmetto Bay resident Anthony Ortega said he was charged $786 for a one-way flight from San Juan to Miami for his 75-year-old mother, Nora Nieves. Ortega was desperate to get Nieves to Miami because she relies on a machine to help her breathe at night. But the power is still out in Bayamón, where she lives, so Nieves has been sleeping in a chair to help her breathe while she sleeps.

When Ortega purchased his mother’s ticket on Sept. 22, an American Airlines cap was in place through Sunday. But his ticket was for a Wednesday flight and did not apply. Although the cap was later extended to run through this week, Ortega did not, at the time, meet the requirements for a cheaper fare.

We are working through the computer system as quickly as possible to institute these caps.

Ross Feinstein, American Airlines spokesman

“We are working through the computer system as quickly as possible to institute these caps,” said American Airlines spokesman Ross Feinstein.

But that hasn’t been enough for frustrated travelers.

“It’s a very good excuse when you relay all the problems to a computer,” Ortega said. His mother’s flight was eventually canceled and he purchased another ticket for Nieves, arriving Oct. 4 on American through Fort Lauderdale, for $197.

As for Ricky Martin’s case, Feinstein said the screenshot posted doesn’t show more information about what date the flight was for or whether it was a premium seat, so it remains unclear why the fare was so steep.

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Why can’t I fly to or from Puerto Rico sooner?

There are very few flights into Puerto Rico at the moment.

JetBlue, the largest carrier in the region, is operating about six flights a day, two from Fort Lauderdale, two from Orlando, one from Boston and one from New York. American Airlines will begin operating three flights to the island from Miami and Philadelphia on Wednesday. Delta is operating three daily flights.

Are there laws against price gouging?

The Federal Aviation Administration and the U.S. Department of Transportation regulate price gouging in the airline industry.

But price gouging in the industry is difficult to identify when most hikes can be traced back to the usual mechanisms of supply and demand, said airline expert Seth Kaplan.

“When many or most flights are completely sold out (can’t get a seat at any price), that’s definitely not gouging, because by definition, it means airlines could have charged more,” said Kaplan, managing partner at trade publication Airline Weekly, in an email. “What happened is that the people quick enough/smart enough/lucky enough (however we want to view it) to jump on and get seats right away got seats that were probably very cheap, relative to all the demand. And then very quickly, everything sold out.”

I don’t know what the practical difference is between a seat that is available but it’s too expensive to afford and a seat that is cheap but it’s sold out. In either case the bottom line is you can’t travel.

Seth Kaplan, managing partner at trade publication Airline Weekly

A full regulation of airline prices would take the industry back to before the Airline Deregulation Act in 1978, which allowed airlines to add flights, increase the number of passengers flown and decrease fares.

“In 1978, airlines were regulated by the government and government regulated the fares,” said George Hobica, founder of Airfarewatchdog.com. “I don’t think anyone wants to go back to that.”

And, while caps can be put in place sooner, Hobica said the result will just be that flights are sold more quickly — and not necessarily to those who need them the most.

“I don’t know what the practical difference is between a seat that is available but it’s too expensive to afford and a seat that is cheap but it’s sold out,” added Kaplan. “In either case the bottom line is you can’t travel.”

Sen. Bill Nelson is considering the possibility of requiring airlines to cap fees when a major storm is approaching.

There may be some middle ground though. Delta’s higher caps for instance, which run from $199 to $499 depending on the flight and seat, might be low enough to pacify travelers but not so low that they are gobbled up quickly, Kaplan said.

Some regulation may be in the works.

Sen. Bill Nelson, who called for airlines to instate caps before Maria and is the ranking member of the Senate’s Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, is considering the possibility of requiring airlines to cap fees when a major storm is approaching. No formal regulations have been proposed yet.

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