Travel wait times would increase considerably under sequestration, several industry officials say. Above, passengers wait for taxis a LaGuardia in New York. (Don Emmert / AFP)
Travelers should brace for longer airport lines and possible flight delays after March 1 if automatic federal spending cuts reduce staffing as scheduled, government and industry officials warn.
“This truly could become a nightmare for travel,” said Geoff Freeman, chief operating officer of the U.S. Travel Association.
To meet automatic spending cuts, the Department of Homeland Security plans to furlough airport screeners at checkpoints before passengers take off and at customs checkpoints for travelers returning home from abroad.
The Transportation Department likewise plans furloughs for air traffic controllers, who direct planes through takeoffs, landings and routes in the skies.
“The result will be felt across the country, as the volume of travel must be decreased,” Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood has told the Senate.
Freeman and others in the travel industry say the threatened cuts appear likely because Congress is out of session this week, and the deadline is fast approaching for $85 billion in across-the-board spending cuts.
A compromise remains elusive as congressional Republicans criticize President Obama for proposing to avert the automatic cuts by mixing spending cuts with closing tax loopholes.
The wait at security checkpoints could be an extra hour and up to three more hours at Customs and Border Protection checkpoints at the nation’s busiest airports, Democrats on the House Appropriations Committee have estimated.
Jean Medina, spokeswoman for airlines trade group Airlines for America, said travelers deserve responsible action from Congress and the president “so they don’t impact our air transportation system, which is a major driver of the economy.”
Airport delays have been a popular weapon in the political debate in previous budget impasses because of the expectation travelers will be upset.
But Freeman and others say they aren’t crying wolf this time.
Scott Lilly, a former Democratic congressional appropriations staffer who now is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress think tank, said this impasse is different because the cuts demanded are across the board. In past disputes, air traffic controllers were exempt.
If the president and Congress don’t do something to avert the cuts, he said, irate travelers will certainly let them know after they’ve hit.
“I think all hell’s going to break loose when people find out how badly their lives have been screwed up, and Congress is going to put their tails between their legs and fix it,” Lilly said.
Bart Jansen reports for USA Today.