Harvey, Irma leave impact on travel industry
Thursday, September 14, 2017
Eyes were glued to TV screens as the nation watched the devastation Hurricane Harvey caused in Texas in late August. Right in its wake came record-setting Hurricane Irma, causing trouble from the Virgin Islands up to Atlanta.
As one reporter noted, the South and the Southeast look like a war zone now. In addition to this destruction, the two storms made major impacts on the travel industry.
Harvey's epic rainfall left massive flooding in Houston and surrounding areas. The Texan economy is one of the strongest in the U.S. and closely linked to the oil and gas industry, which has been rudely shaken by the hurricane. As expected, it immediately spiked gas prices since the Texas Gulf Coast accounts for 27 percent of the nation's refining capacity.
Harvey will likely be the costliest natural disaster in U.S. history, close to $190 billion. This is more damage than Hurricane Katrina and Superstorm Sandy combined. All major industries faced losses, but none more than travel and tourism. It will be some time before they can recoup their losses.
Houston's two airports were closed for a week, leading to more than 12,000 flight cancellations. Only flights connected to relief efforts could fly in and out — Southwest Airlines, for instance, airlifted about 500 stranded passengers during the closure.
Though airlines offered customers to reschedule their trips, the ferocity of the storm did not make it easy for them to travel. With major interstates and tollways submerged underwater, road travel was also out of the question.
Two weeks after the devastation, Houston is slowly limping back to life. While both airports — George Bush Intercontinental Airport and William P. Hobby Airport — are open, they are offering limited operations.
As the storm shifted course and severity, major airlines kept amending their rebooking policies. In the beginning, it was just the standard rebooking period of a few days, but soon they had to change that and extend the period through late September.
Travelers who planned to visit Houston over Labor Day could cancel, but Houstonians who were traveling to other areas found it difficult to get back home. Some had to impose on friends and families, while others had to bear the unexpected expenses of extended hotel stays.
Like the airlines, the hospitality industry jumped in to help, too. Most hotels started discounts for those evacuating from Harvey. Airbnb went a step ahead and partnered with hosts in and around San Antonio, Austin, Dallas, Houston and to areas of Louisiana to open their homes for free. The offer stands through Sept. 25.
More than 50 counties in Texas, as well as southwest Louisiana, have been impacted by Harvey. Even with airports opening, getting around Houston has been difficult since more than 400 Texas roads were flooded. Though this caused some sporadic disruptions for fliers nationwide, airlines have worked hard to minimize the inconvenience for travelers.
By grounding flights and having large blocks of preemptive cancellations, airlines hoped to combat the weather-related ripple effects during extreme storms like these. They were able to save their aircraft and crews from becoming stranded. Having idled crews and planes at hand, they could also mobilize to a full schedule quickly and aid in relief efforts better as well.
The massive flooding and wind damage are still affecting travel in these areas, which is bad news for many.
Just as the flights to Houston started to function normally, Irma caused further disruption for travelers. Harvey's devastation served as a dire warning, and many changed their travel plans before the storm's arrival.
For a large number of evacuees in Florida, however, things have been tough. The prospect of delays and cancellations continue to cause trouble even as flights slowly resume at most Florida airports.
Airports themselves are reeling from the storm damage and lack of personnel since most Floridians have been evacuated from affected areas. Even planes were flown out of the state to avoid Irma's wrath, so resources are strapped all around.
With many hotels closed and the rest overbooked, flying in the extra crew is hard, too. With far less flooding, roads in Florida are in better condition than Texas, but authorities are urging evacuees returning home to exercise caution.
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