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Hurricane Hilary takes aim at California as airlines issue weather waivers

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Hurricane Hilary is a rare Category 3 hurricane currently on track to hit Southern California this weekend. Hilary is expected to hit California as a tropical storm and could cause flooding and other damage in much of the Southwestern United States. If that happens, it will be the first tropical storm to hit California since 1939.

There is a hurricane warning in effect already for parts of Mexico.

It’s already disrupting flights and airlines have issued weather waivers for many airports in Mexico, California and even Nevada. “We’re just battening down the hatches,” Jonathan Heller, spokesman for San Diego International Airport told the Los Angeles Times.

“It’s not a matter of whether there will be disruptions, but how extensive those disruptions will be,” said Henry Harteveldt, a travel industry analyst and president of Atmosphere Research.

“The other concern is recovery,” he continued, “What steps have airlines, especially those with substantial operations in the areas that will be affected by the hurricane, begun to take to minimize having crew and aircraft out of position? How quickly will airlines resume operations once it is safe for them to do so?”

Hurricane Hillary track form the National Hurricane Center.
Hurricane Hilary track from the National Hurricane Center. NATIONAL HURRICANE CENTER

U.S. airlines have already issued weather waivers if you are traveling through Los Cabos International Airport (SJD), Harry Reid International Airport (LAS) in Las Vegas or the following California airports:

  • Hollywood Burbank Airport (BUR)
  • Los Angeles International Airport (LAX)
  • Long Beach Airport (LGB)
  • Ontario International Airport (ONT)
  • Palm Springs International Airport (PSP)
  • San Diego International Airport (SAN)
  • Santa Barbara Airport (SBA)
  • John Wayne Airport in Orange County  (SNA)

All the major airlines have issued weather waivers for those airports for various days through as late as through August 28, though some are being more flexible than others. Those airlines include American Airlines, Alaska, Delta Air Lines, United Airlines, Southwest Airlines and JetBlue.

Hillary travel advisory page from Delta. DELTA AIR LINES
Hilary travel advisory page from Delta. DELTA AIR LINES

That means you can reschedule your trip without change fees, and some airlines will also allow you to rebook without having to pay any fare differences, though that’s not true of all.

Most airlines will make you keep the same city pairs as your originally booked, though check with your airline as they may be willing to adjust that too. It never hurts to ask.

Tickets must be in the same cabin and between the same cities as originally booked. Travel will likely have to take place within one year of the original ticket’s dates. 

Here’s the language from American Airlines, for example, “Changes must be booked by August 21, 2023. Travel must be completed within 1 year of original ticket date; difference in fare may apply.”

Remember that as a rule, airlines and hotels aren’t obligated to offer you compensation if your flight is delayed or canceled due to Mother Nature or an “Act of God” –in other words weather.

Flight disruptions from Hurricane Hilary

There are already some substantial flight disruptions from Hurricane Hilary. For example, 20% of flights into or out of Los Cabos International Airport (SJD) in Mexico were canceled on Saturday as of 1:38 p.m. ET, according to Flight Aware.

Better news, so far, in the U.S., Only 196 flights into or out of the U.S. have been canceled, but those numbers will spike as the worst of the storm batters the southwestern United States.

The fear is over what might happen once the skies open up which is what the forecast is currently calling for … flooding rains.

“I’m worried about flooding,” said John E. DiScala, the travel news site Johnny Jet founder and editor-in-chief, “I was in Palm Springs two years ago and walked into a grocery store on a cloudy day. I came out 10-15 minutes later and the parking lot and streets were flooded. It was shocking. It definitely gave me perspective on how fast these things can happen and how important it is to be prepared.”

If you are impacted by Hurricane Hilary

A rough sea is seen from Cabo San Lucas, Baja California State, Mexico,
A rough sea from Cabo San Lucas, Baja California State, Mexico, as rain and gusts of wind of Hurricane Hilary reach the area, on August 19, 2023. ALFREDO ESTRELLA/AFP VIA GETTY IMAGES

If your flight is canceled, remember that you are entitled to a full refund back to the payment method you used.

Here are a few of our top tips. Call your airline as soon as possible. If you are at the airport already, go to the service desk and get in line, but your should also be calling the customer service number, and we suggest that you also contact them via social media if there’s a long wait. Sometimes, an airline’s Twitter or Instagram representative will help you faster than a phone or in-person agent can. You have to use every tool at your disposal when things go south.

Many airlines also now have live chat capabilities to help navigate delays and cancellations.

You should also have an alternate plan (or two) in the back of your mind in case a flight gets canceled or delayed. I also look to see what other airlines are flying the route I’m booked on case there might be an alternate airline. This way, you’ll know what to ask for if you need to be rebooked.

Also, save all the receipts for the expenses you incur during delays or cancellations. You’ll want excellent documentation in the case of meltdowns like the one Southwest passengers experienced during the holidays.

We have a complete guide to everything you need to know if your flight is delayed or canceled here. 

Related: 3 things to do if your flight is delayed

Trip insurance

If you booked travel to a destination that could be affected by Hilary, look to see how you booked your trip. You may have used a credit card that will reimburse you if the airline or hotels you booked won’t.

Some credit cards like the Chase Sapphire Reserve, Chase Sapphire Preferred Card, and The Platinum Card® from American Express offer trip protection that ensures you won’t be responsible for many expenses resulting from a lengthy trip delay or cancellation. You simply pay upfront for things like hotels and car rentals, and you may be eligible for reimbursement afterward if you paid with an eligible card.

Remember that most extra travel insurance policies don’t cover trip cancellation if you preemptively cancel your trip because you just don’t like the weather forecast.  Still right now, the airlines are being fairly flexible.

Bottom line

Hurricane Hilary is expected to hit California as a tropical storm this weekend. The storm is already disrupting flights and airlines have issued weather waivers. It remains to be seen how airlines will recover from the likely further flgiht delays and cancellations we can expect as the storm moves through the Untied States.

“Travelers can be forgiven if they have a sense of “uh oh, here we go again” regarding not just airline disruptions but the post-storm recovery,” said Harteveldt.