Tropical Storm Michael: First airline waiver is out

Tropical Storm Michael rapidly formed off Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula, has gained new strength and could become a dangerous Category 2 hurricane. Forcasters say it's expected to strike the Gulf Coast in the Florida Panhandle midweek. (Oct. 8)

This map from the National Hurricane Center shows the projected track for Tropical Storm Michael as of Oct. 8, 2018. (Photo: National Hurricane Center)

Travelers have another tropical system to keep tabs on this week.

Tropical Storm Michael formed Sunday morning in the Caribbean Sea and is forecast to strengthen into a hurricane and move toward the U.S. Gulf Coast by midweek, the National Hurricane Center said. The storm could make landfall along Florida’s western panhandle late Wednesday or early Thursday, according to the latest forecasts.

The National Hurricane Center projects  Michael could strengthen to a Category 1 or 2 storm, but it’s not yet clear how it might affect flights. The current track would have Michael come ashore near mostly smaller regional airports, though the system is then projected to move toward Atlanta and possibly Charlotte after making landfall.

Even if that track holds, however, Michael’s effect on schedules at those airports would depend on whether the storm brought heavy winds and severe weather that far inland. It’s possible that what’s left of Michael could move over those airports without major disruptions, but fliers should be on alert for updates.

For now, U.S. carriers are likely to begin waiving change fees for coastal airports along Michael’s projected path.

On Sunday, Southwest Airlines became the first to enact a flexible rebooking policy for several airports along the Gulf Coast.

Unique among big U.S. carriers, Southwest does not charge change fees, but it is allowing customers ticketed to New Orleans and the Florida cities of Panama City and Pensacola to make one change to their itineraries without paying a new fare. The waiver covers customers scheduled to fly through those airports from Tuesday (Oct. 9) through Thursday (Oct. 11). Included in the fine print for the waiver, customers can move their flights to within 14 days of their original date of travel. 

Southwest’s waiver also covers flights at Cancun, Mexico, and Havana, Cuba, though waiver dates are different for those airports. 

So far, Southwest is the only big carrier to waive rebooking charges, but other airlines that fly to airports along the Gulf Coast are likely to do the same.

Check back for updates. (Next update: By 10:30 a.m. ET)

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