MIAMI — Just as it tends to, tragedy has once again brought people together, and this time the tragedy was twofold. Hurricane Harvey hit southern Texas on August 25, just about two weeks before Irma first made landfall in Florida. And prior to hitting the continental U.S., Irma slammed into the Caribbean, causing unthinkable damage on a number of islands. So far, at least 12 people have died in Florida as a result of the storm, bringing Irma’s total death toll to more than 60.
Any natural disaster is an expectedly emotional experience, evoking stress, fear, sadness, and in the case of many travelers, pure, unfiltered anger. Of course, an event like this wreaks havoc on the airlines and travelers, both directly and indirectly. And that havoc can make the often-times frustrating flying experience even more frustrating.
Both of Houston’s airports – Bush Intercontinental (IAH) and William P. Hobby (HOU) – were closed due to Harvey, canceling more than 10,000 flights. More than 14,000 flights were canceled due to Irma, the bulk of them into and out of Florida.
But with those cancelations, there’s only so much the airlines can do. Getting tens of thousands of passengers rebooked isn’t an easy feat, as much as we all wish that it was. These storms caused people to miss vacations, miss connecting flights and even left many stranded in unfamiliar territory, unsure of how or when they’d get home.
And while the airlines worked (and continue to work) on overdrive to get travelers where they need to be, many went above and beyond their calls of duty to lend a helping hand (or in this case, a helping wing) to those in need.
A number of airlines offered support in many forms, including matching monetary or point donations, sending in relief flights with supplies and staff, or airlifting stranded passengers to safety.
Southwest Flies Travelers, Four-Legged Friends out of Harm’s Way
Two days after Harvey struck southern Texas, Dallas-based Southwest flew five 737s full of stranded passengers out of Houston Hobby, even after the airport had ceased operations due to weather.
The airline didn’t stop there.
Just over a week later, a Southwest 737 on its final flight before retirement (Austin-San Diego) welcomed more than 60 furry friends on board – animals that had been displaced due to Harvey. The cats and dogs all rode in the aircraft’s main cabin, strapped into seats inside their carriers.
And even though Irma hit so shortly after Harvey did, Southwest was still able to put into action a number of lessons learned in Houston, as they prepared for a similar situation to unfold in Florida. The airline organized several flights to get employees and their families out of harm’s way. According to Southwest Spokesman Dan Landson, they’re now in the process of getting those employees back home as operations resume.
“Once the storms’ impact on our people and operations ends, we’ll go through our preparedness plans to get a better understanding of our response,” Landson said. “Right now, though, our focus remains on our people, and ensuring they are safe and getting any assistance they might need as they recover from Harvey and Irma,” he added.
Delta Steps Up, Sending in Rescue Flights, Making Donations
Two days after Harvey hit Texas, Delta sent a rescue flight to IAH to bring in supplies and relief personnel, and to evacuate staff and travelers. Supplies included water, food, and amenity kits, and the flight back out brought roughly 40 travelers to safety.
Delta also pledged $250,000 to the Red Cross to aid in Harvey relief efforts – this was in addition to $1 million they had already donated as a part of an existing partnership. Customers can donate miles to the Red Cross through SkyWish, with Delta offering to match up to $10 million. Customers can also donate money to the Red Cross through the Company Microsite, with all money going toward disaster relief, including those efforts taking place following Harvey and Irma. As of Wednesday morning, nearly $18,000 had been donated. Employees were invited to contribute as well.
As Irma neared Florida, Delta added an additional 4,000 seats departing the state Saturday. The flights operated out of Sarasota, Orlando, Tampa, Jacksonville and Daytona Beach, with additional flights departing Atlanta as well. On Monday, the airline sent a Boeing 757 to St. Thomas, carrying in relief supplies and bringing 150 people to Detroit. Supplies included TSA equipment, satellite phones, batteries, phone chargers, water, dry goods and other nonperishables.
In a company statement, Mike Lowry, Delta’s General Manager of Charter Operations and Administration, said the entire Delta team put forth a Herculean effort. “Departments across the company are working together and moving very quickly to make these efforts possible to help our customers and employees,” Lowry said.
Delta also solicited support from non-frontline employees through the airline’s “Peach Corps” – a volunteer program that assigns administrative personnel to customer-facing roles. More than 100 volunteers helped with everything from wayfinding and check-in at Hartsfield-Jackson Airport in Atlanta – Delta’s primary hub.
On Tuesday, Delta pledged an additional $1 million to the Red Cross specifically for Irma relief efforts. That same day, as Irma weakened, most of the airline’s operations in Florida had started up again, and Atlanta operations were stable.
As Much as People Love to Hate the Airlines, Disaster Brought Out the Good in Most All of Them
In addition to relief efforts put forth by Southwest and Delta, a number of other U.S. – and even Canadian – airlines rose to the challenge to help those in need.
American Airlines, who has a major hub in Miami, had operations disrupted at more than 50 airports due to Irma. The airline encouraged members of their frequent flyer program to donate to the Red Cross. Those who donate a minimum of $25 between Sept. 7 and 24 will earn 10 miles for each dollar. As of Wednesday morning, nearly 6,000 contributions amounted to more than $1.3 million raised.
In addition to sending a number of flights to aid in Harvey relief, United added an additional 1,500 seats to help move people out of southern Florida before Irma struck. The airline also flew a Boeing 777 into San Juan with supplies including water, amenity kits, food and volunteers. United partnered with several disaster relief organizations and is offering up to 1,000 bonus miles to MileagePlus members who make charitable donations. The airline will also match the first $200,000 raised for Harvey and the first $100,000 raised for Irma. Donations can be made on United’s fundraising page. As of Wednesday morning, nearly $2.5 million had been raised for Harvey and more than $200,000 had been raised for Irma.
Following Harvey, Alaska Airlines donated $100,000 to the Red Cross and offered additional support by partnering with four organizations to get relief workers to Texas airports that the airline services, at no charge. Similar to other airlines, Alaska also encouraged members of their frequent flyer program to donate miles to support relief, offering to match up to 1 million points. On Monday, the airline donated an additional $100,000 to the Red Cross, following Irma.
Florida-based Spirit, whose largest market is Fort Lauderdale, flew empty planes into Houston following Harvey, bringing nearly 200 travelers to Chicago and Detroit – only a few of them Spirit customers. In preparation for Irma, the airline closed its Miramar headquarters and flew hundreds of employees and their families up to Detroit.
New York-based JetBlue has stepped up to the plate too, encouraging customers and crewmembers to donate to the Red Cross, Americares or Florida Disaster Fund – organizations the airline has already made significant donations to and will match additional employee donations to. Members of the airline’s TruBlue program can donate points to Americares to benefit those impacted by both of the hurricanes – JetBlue will match up to 500,000 points. The airline continues to work to re-accommodate passengers whose flights were canceled due to Irma, offering rebooking at a reduced rate.
Today (Wednesday, Sept. 13), JetBlue is serving up hot meals in Florida. The airline will have 20 food trucks serving food at the BB&T Center (2555 NW 136th Ave in Sunrise). The meals will be provided at no charge to neighbors, first responders and anyone else in need. Lunch will be available from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. and dinner from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m. with meals served on a first come, first served basis.
Even Canada-based WestJet stepped in to help, using its social media channels to reach out to travelers stranded in St. Maarten. The airline operated a rescue flight Monday afternoon, bringing passengers off the island and back to Toronto. Additionally, WestJet operated a number of rescue flights out of Florida, Cuba and several islands in the Caribbean. The airline also offered a promo code to travelers attempting to leave Florida and South Carolina, offering 50 percent off flights out of Miami, Fort Lauderdale, Fort Myers, Tampa, Orlando and Myrtle Beach to any Canadian destination. WestJet encourages those interested in helping in relief efforts to contact the Canadian Red Cross directly.
Here’s to Hoping for Blue Skies and Tailwinds in the Coming Weeks
It’s something those in the airline industry always hope for, but now they’re looking for that light at the end of the tunnel more than ever. While natural disasters bring about a tremendous feeling of loss in so many ways, it’s still pretty amazing to see people from all walks of life come together, both on the ground and the sky, for the greater good.
For those with travel plans affected by either Hurricane Harvey or Irma, contact your airline directly. Visit the American Red Cross website to find out how you can help in relief efforts.