As Maria looms, US airlines cap fares out of storm's path

Major U.S. airlines said on Tuesday they would cap one-way air fares to aid evacuations out of Hurricane Maria's dangerous path, in the second such costly move in less than a month.

While fare caps can generate public goodwill, even brief flight cancellations and modest fare caps can have a negative financial impact of millions of dollars for airlines.

As the powerful Category 5 storm Maria churned over the Atlantic, wreaking havoc on tiny islands in the Caribbean, residents in its likely path looked to evacuate ahead of the storm's expected Wednesday arrival near or over the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico.

Senator Bill Nelson, a Florida Democrat, wrote to airlines' chief executives urging them to implement price caps on fares for evacuees as they had done ahead of Hurricane Irma, another Category 5 storm that inundated parts of the Caribbean and Florida earlier this month.

The largest U.S. carriers implemented some level of fare cap on flights out of the area. But airlines are still recovering from an earlier rash of powerful storms that thrashed Texas, Louisiana, Florida and the Caribbean, damaging ports, halting service and costing hundreds of millions of dollars in lost revenue.

When Hurricane Harvey swept through Texas, dumping several feet (meters) of rain in the Houston area, United Airlines , which has one of the biggest operations in the area, is estimated to have absorbed a hit of upwards of $265 million, according to an early projection by analyst Helane Becker of Cowen & Co. Smaller rival Spirit Airlines Inc is forecast to have lost $11 million in the storm.

A second storm, the deadly Hurricane Irma, engulfed parts of the Caribbean and Florida, likely costing carrier Southwest Airlines some $40 million or more, in addition to the $40 million to $60 million blow caused by Harvey.

The exact financial impact of the trio of powerful storms is not yet known, but will likely register in the hundreds of millions, with negative effects to reverberate through at least the third quarter.

American Airlines Group Inc said on Tuesday it would cap one-way nonstop fares at $99 for main cabin and $199 for premium cabins through Sept. 24 from some airports in the region.

United Airlines said it capped fares from Puerto Rico at $384 and added seats and an extra flight from Puerto Rico this week.

Delta Air Lines Inc said it had added extra flights to Puerto Rico and capped main cabin, one-way fares at $199 for flights departing through Thursday from airports in Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic. The carrier also temporarily waived baggage and pet carriage fees for travelers in the storm's path.

JetBlue Airways Corp added 17 flights to its schedule from cities affected by Hurricane Maria and said it was offering remaining seats on flights to and from San Juan, Aguadilla, Ponce, St. Croix, and Antigua at reduced fares, through Sept. 25.

(Reporting by David Shepardson in Washington and Alana Wise in New York; Editing by Lisa Shumaker)