One of the biggest evacuations of aircraft on record is taking shape as airlines and private aircraft owners are moving their planes, and themselves, out of Hurricane Irma’s path.
At least 500 aircraft scheduled for flights into or out of the state will flee Friday and Saturday depending on the storm’s direction, according to aviation consultant Mead & Hunt. As many as 210 planes that normally stay overnight in Florida would be among those shuttled out, said Sam Engel, head of the aviation practice at consultant ICF.
The Federal Aviation Administration said today its Miami-based traffic controllers handled 11,530 flights on Thursday, compared with 8,847 the same day a week earlier.
The number of planes will increase throughout Friday as airlines begin to shut operations in such cities as Fort Lauderdale, Orlando, and Miami, a major hub for American Airlines Group Inc. More than 4,600 flights have been canceled from Sept. 1 through tomorrow at airports in Irma’s path, according to Flightaware.com, a tracking website. Three other carriers, Southwest Airlines Co., Spirit Airlines Inc., and JetBlue Airways Corp., have major operations in Fort Lauderdale. American Airlines canceled 2,545 flights Friday through Sept. 11. The carrier is making seven added flights to move people out of Miami Friday before closing operations there.
“This is a very substantial evacuation,” said Vik Krishnan, a principal with consultant Oliver Wyman. “When you think about South Florida, there are four major airlines with very large operations.”
Airlines typically cancel flights before major storms and move aircraft away so they aren’t stranded in closed airports or damaged by high winds, flying debris, collapsing facilities, or flood waters. The Irma displacements are “one of the biggest weather-related” movements, said Doug Blissit, an air services consultant for Mead & Hunt in Atlanta. Even the biggest planes can become toys in the hands of Mother Nature’s wrath:
Delta Air Lines Inc., Southwest, and American will stop flights out of South Florida Friday evening through Sunday and may cease operations at other Florida airports through the weekend as Irma moves in. Miami also is a destination for a large number of international flights, and IAG’s British Airways and Virgin Atlantic are among carriers that have grounded flights headed there.
“We’re not going to leave any aircraft in south Florida,” said Ross Feinstein, a spokesman for American. “Aircraft undergoing maintenance that are unable to fly will be placed in a hangar and secured.” Airlines will move planes to different cities around their networks, with larger numbers likely to be parked at hub airports such as Dallas-Fort Worth, Philadelphia, or Charlotte, N.C.
JetBlue Airways Corp. will park planes primarily in New York and Boston, said Doug McGraw, a spokesman. Southwest will try to minimize a lag in restarting service by parking planes where their pilot and flight attendant crews are based, spokesman Dan Landson said. Spirit has closed its Miramar, Fla., headquarters, shifted its operations center to Detroit, and will stop flying from Fort Lauderdale, its biggest airport, late Friday, said Paul Berry, a spokesman.
American added flights with more than 3,600 seats to evacuate residents from Miami and capped one-way fares in coach at $99 and $199 for premium seats ahead of the storm and Sept. 10 through Sept. 17. JetBlue began offering one-way fares from Florida of $99 to $159 on Sept. 6.
Since Wednesday, Delta has added 24 extra flights, carrying more than 5,000 extra seats, in Florida and the Caribbean. The added flights include a Boeing Co. 747 flying from Detroit to Orlando on Friday, said Morgan Durrant, a Delta spokesman. As 747s disappear, plane aficionados have been lining up for one last ride—a fact acknowledged on posts on Twitter urging casual flyers to make way for evacuees.