In Florida, Anyone With a Plane Is Flying Away From Irma

The Category 4 hurricane has created a mass exodus in the skies as airlines and private pilots move out of harm’s way.
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Xojet CEO on the Scramble to Leave Florida Before Irma

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.

Air traffic in Florida Sept. 8, 2017. Via FlightRadar24

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 its Miami-based traffic controllers handled 11,530 flights on Thursday, compared with 8,847 the same day a week earlier. 

Meanwhile, 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. The number will increase as airlines begin to shut operations in such cities as Fort Lauderdale, Orlando, and Miami, a major hub for American Airlines Group Inc. Three other carriers, Southwest Airlines Co., Spirit Airlines Inc., and JetBlue Airways Corp., have also major operations in Fort Lauderdale. American Airlines canceled 2,545 flights Friday through Sept. 11, but 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.

The number of planes being moved out of Florida will rise if airports in northern and western areas of the state are hard hit, said Mead & Hunt’s Blissit. “These are expensive pieces of equipment and you don’t want to have them in harms way,” added Krishnan. Repairs to planes can take some time and the financial impact “is less the actual cost of the damage than the revenue left on the table by not being able to operate the aircraft.”

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.

But for some people, reasonably priced escape options ran out. Albert Levy, 42, splits his time between Miami and New York and was in Sunny Isles Beach, in northeast Miami-Dade County, to check on his three children as Irma neared. He said he’d spent hours scouting websites and on the phone searching for a ticket back to the Big Apple. 

The only one he could get was a 48-hour trek that would have taken him through Hong Kong. So after conferring with a friend who works for Signature Flight Support, he opted to drive an hour north to Palm Beach International. He said he paid $5,000 for his ticket. “It breaks the bank to do this,” Levy said, as families loaded up the terminal. But “you’re going to spend your money on something—why not on being safe? I’m going on a real nice plane, and I’ll get some free booze at least.”

Levy wasn’t alone. Brad Stewart, chief executive of XOJet, which owns a fleet of 41 aircraft, said he was booking flights until noon Florida time and had the most demand out of the Palm Beach area. By 3 p.m., all of XOJet’s flights were in the air or about to take off. “This is one of the craziest experiences,” he said in an interview on Bloomberg TV. “Clients, literally people who are used to flying privately all the time, are saying, ‘we’ll go to any airport, any moment. Tell us where to go. We'll drive two or three hours.’”

Air Charter Service, which contracts for private, commercial and cargo aircraft, said it booked as many as 20 flights through Thursday to move people from the hurricane’s path through the Caribbean and Florida. Price can range from $7,000 or $8,000 to “tens of thousands,” depending on the number of people aboard, said Glenn Phillips, a spokesman.

Leonard Abess, the billionaire former banker and owner of Orion Jet Center in Miami’s Opa-Locka Executive Airport, said the traffic there was unlike anything in recent memory over the past two days. He said taxi lines were 20 deep, and some people reported waiting five to six hours on planes.
 
“The last two days were extraordinary,” he said by telephone from Goshen, Vermont, where he planned to wait out the storm. “People backed up big-time.”

— With assistance by Thomas Black

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