This NASA handout photo shows a view from the International Space Station of Hurricane Florence off the US east coast in the Atlantic Ocean on Sept. 10, 2018. (Photo: AFP/Getty Images)
Hurricane Florence is bearing down on the East Coast, where it could strike as a Category 4 storm by the week’s end.
What should you do if you’re flying to, from or through the region? Here are some answers to questions you might be asking.
Will Hurricane Florence affect flights?
Yes. It’s too early to tell exactly what the impact will be. But you can expect that airports along the Carolina coast will halt operations from ahead of landfall until the storm moves inland. The airports serving Charleston, South Carolina; Myrtle Beach, South Carolina; and Wilmington, North Carolina, are among the biggest likely to be affected, but dozens of airports in the region will probably see disruptions of some sort.
Once the storm eventually heads inland — as is currently forecast — its effect will depend on the exact track. Charlotte, which is one of the busiest hubs for American Airlines – is the most likely major hub to be affected. It’s possible, but not guaranteed, the airport could suspend flights if Florence or its remnants move over the area. Raleigh/Durham; Richmond, Virginia; Norfolk, Virginia; and Greensboro, North Carolina; are among the biggest inland airports that could face disruptions from Florence.
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The busy airports near Washington, D.C., are also inside “cone of uncertainty” of Florence’s expected track, but it’s too early to tell if or how badly the storm will slow flights there.
Current forecasts also call for Florence to stall out over the mid-Atlantic once after it approaches the coast. If the storm blocks flight paths along the busy East Coast flight corridor, it could force delays and cancellations similar to the way long lines of thunderstorms do. That could lead to delays and cancellations in places like New York, Philadelphia, Washington and Atlanta as airlines and air traffic control react to the reduced airspace capacity.
Will your flight be canceled?
It’s impossible to tell. So much depends on the precise track and timing of the storm. The coastal airports are the likeliest to see cancellations, but all travelers in the region should monitor both the storm and the status of their flights and airports.
Should you take a different flight?
All big airlines have rolled out flexible rebooking waivers that – with some fine print – allow fliers to move their trips up or back to avoid the storm. If you intend to do this, book now. Flights were already full before the storm, and any available seats that were still left are likely filling up fast as folks try to get out of the area.
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Don’t forget about connections
Remember, Florence could affect you even if the mid-Atlantic is not your primary origin or destination. If you’re connecting — say on an itinerary like Hartford to Houston via Charlotte or one from Kansas City to Tampa via Raleigh/Durham.
What if all the seats on your route are already full?
Flexibility will go along way in helping you find a seat, even if it means taking that 5:30 a.m. flight you’d prefer to avoid.
But, if that fails, be creative. If you’re going to Oklahoma, check to see if there are any flights to Tulsa or Dallas and then rent a car to get home. It may be a pain, but – depending on your situation – it’s probably better than being stranded in an area about to get hit by a Category 4 Hurricane.
Check for rental cars. Either drive out of the area and find a hotel or shelter until the storm passes. Or, maybe you can drive to a different airport that still has open seats on flights. The latter option will require some reservations choreography between your airline and rental car agency. Don’t assume you can just drive to Greenville/Spartanburg and catch a flight. Ask your airline if they have a seat for you if you can get there, and make sure you can actually get there before accepting the seat.
What are you entitled to if your flight is canceled?
Probably less than you expect. By law, airlines are only entitled to offer you a refund or a seat on the next flight with open seats. At their discretion, airlines do sometimes offer things like hotel or food vouchers, but they’re not required to. When they do, it’s typically for maintenance (and not weather) disruptions. For Florence, do not expect your airline to help you with lodging.
Will the airport have up-to-date information about flight cancellations?
Not really. Most airports will post flight status information on their websites, but only your airline has reliable information about whether your flight will operate.
Does your airline really not know if your flight is going to be canceled?
Probably not. Though most forecasts have narrowed the area where landfall is projected, hurricanes are notoriously difficult to track with any sort of precision. If the storm shifts 40 miles in one direction or another – as is possible – the conditions at any one airport could change dramatically.
As the storm nears and the uncertainty decreases, airlines will begin canceling flights. Likely many flights. But, as of Tuesday morning, everyone is waiting to see exactly where the storm will go.
Can you shelter at the airport?
You shouldn’t plan on it. Airports rarely “close,” but some might as local residents (and employees) evacuate. Even if your airport doesn’t technically close its doors, it will be thinly staffed. That means options for food and other necessities could be limited, especially if you’re at a smaller airport. Even more importantly, some airports along the coast could be damaged as the storm roars ashore. This is a good reason to check ahead on the status of your flight before heading to the airport.
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