Ron & Mary James at Hobbington, New Zealand

After days of dominating the news, Hurricane Irma is taking a backseat to what will be a lengthy recovery by areas the powerful storm battered in the Caribbean and Florida. Now comes the assessment of how all of the key actors, public and corporate, did to aid the millions who faced and became victims of Irma’s might. The report card on the role that airlines played is still incomplete, but by and large, their image took another deserved beating, adding to an ongoing series of shoot-yourself-in-the-foot actions. It didn’t need to happen that way.
After thousands of complaints about ticket-price gouging in Florida, U.S. Representative Charlie Crist wrote to Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao calling for an investigation of airline behavior during a crisis.

Responding to angry constituents, U.S Senators Blumenthal and Markey responded immediately, “Airlines certainly have a right to a reasonable return for services rendered and vagaries in pricing are to be expected; but airlines have no right to impose exorbitant, unfair prices on Americans simply trying to get out of harm’s way.”

The depth of airline greed was unavoidable on social media where screenshots of soaring ticket prices during evacuations shows some tickets jumping from $547 to more than $3,200. Industry supporters suggested that it was business as usual, computer generated increases based on supply and demand. The airline later claimed that these occurrences were technical glitches or anomalies. Anomalies or whether they were Legal or not, the optics are terrible for an industry enduring plenty of bad press recently. Even the perception of gouging helpless victims adds to the public’s rage about arbitrary fees for everything from baggage to blankets.

On top of that are the shocking, headline-making displays of corporate greed and arrogance. Who can comprehend the callousness behind the forcible removal of a passenger so that a higher paying flyer could take his seat. Such incidents underscore bad management and staffing with untrained, overworked and underpaid personnel.

Black eyes for the airline industry during catastrophic events like Irma are avoidable. Most airlines and their crews were heroes; they capped fares, added flights and crews and went above and beyond to help some very scared and tired people. If all had reacted this way, the social media buzz would have been an entirely different story.

But for some reason for some airlines it was business supply and demand as usual, allowing computers to force evacuees to stay in harm’s way because they couldn’t afford pricy last minute tickets. Unfortunately natural disasters like this hurricane season are occurring with greater frequency and intensity. Clearly it’s time for the airline industry to set some humanitarian standards for their role during national emergencies to help rather than pick pockets. Maybe there’s a silver lining here, maybe being a responsible corporate citizen may become fashionable again and empathy will overcome computer-generated greed.
Maybe. But we’re not holding our breath.