A rush of international airline travelers is seen arriving at Dulles International Airport in this file photo. Wait times at customs are increasing at airports nationwide due to federal budget cuts, a survey shows. (Paul J. Richards / AFP / Getty Images)
Travelers taking off from the nation’s biggest airports aren’t facing longer security lines from federal spending cuts yet, but many of those arriving from overseas are.
A USA Today survey of airport officials and travelers at Atlanta, Chicago’s O’Hare, Los Angeles, Miami, New York’s JFK and Washington Dulles this week finds that lines at Transportation Security Administration checkpoints aren’t noticeably longer for most departing passengers a month after federal spending cuts were imposed.
However, customs lines for many people arriving on international flights are growing — prompting Los Angeles airport officials to hold passengers on planes for up to an hour at busy times before letting them into terminals.
“Those kinds of waits are unacceptable,” says Nancy Castles, spokeswoman at Los Angeles International Airport, where customs lines indoors could take an additional 90 minutes. “It’s annoying to passengers and unacceptable to us.”
Fliers in TSA lines haven’t suffered as much. At the world’s busiest airport in Atlanta, general manager Louis Miller says waits at TSA checkpoints continue to average about 10 to 20 minutes, which is normal.
Basketball fans flying out of Atlanta after this weekend’s NCAA Final Four men’s tournament shouldn’t face delays, he says, because TSA has bolstered staffing. “They have overtime people they need to get it done, so they don’t anticipate a major problem,” Miller says.
The Department of Homeland Security, which oversees TSA and Customs and Border Protection, says it’s seeking to handle the spending cuts with a hiring freeze at TSA and reducing overtime at customs.
The USA Today survey indicates that has largely worked. Travelers say they’ve encountered only sporadic delays worse than usual.
Sarah Brady, 39, said she hadn’t noticed longer TSA lines lately as she waited to clear security Wednesday at Los Angeles International. “I find things always bad,” Brady said, standing in a line that spilled out of a terminal onto an open-air pedestrian bridge.
Julia Miller, 37, an art consultant in Los Angeles, says she missed a recent flight to Dallas because of a long security line. “Everyone was fuming,” she said Tuesday at O’Hare airport. “We were all inclined to blame what’s going on in Washington.”
Coming into the U.S. is an increasingly long ordeal for many.
The longest customs lines at New York’s JFK airport are in the morning. In March, the agency says, waits averaged nearly three hours, an hour longer than in January.
Mark Geller, 41, of Metuchen, N.J., shrugged off the 50-minute wait to clear customs after arriving at JFK from Cancun, Mexico, on Tuesday. There, three agents dealt with U.S. citizens, while several booths sat empty. “What are you going to do?” Geller says.
Wait times for passport processing in Miami spiked as high as three hours and 40 minutes March 2 from one hour the previous Saturday before the spending cut, says airport spokesman Greg Chin. In the busy mornings and late afternoons of March 2 and 16, hundreds of passengers missed connecting flights, he says.
“Miami has probably been the U.S. airport hardest hit by the overtime cuts,” Chin says.
Wait times in customs lines at Washington Dulles also are creeping up by 30 minutes during busy times, although the airport recently doubled its screening space and added a third more booths at a cost of $180 million.
“It’s becoming very real,” says airport manager Christopher Browne. “If somebody misses their connection because of staffing, the airline is not required to pay to put them up for a night waiting for tomorrow’s flight.”
The U.S. Travel Association says waiting hours in line to clear customs isn’t a good way to welcome international travelers. “According to research and anecdotes, these lines discourage people from coming to America,” says Geoff Freeman, chief operating officer of the association, which represents the nation’s travel industry.
The worry is delays in all lines will only get worse this summer, the busiest season for air travel, as the effects of the cuts snowball.
TSA has imposed a hiring freeze that it says could leave 1,000 positions open by Memorial Day and 2,600 by the end of summer. TSA says it is analyzing its spending bill for options that minimize the impact on its operations and workforce.
“Length of lines at security checkpoints vary by airport and travel season,” spokeswoman Sterling Payne says. “A fluctuation in wait times can be seen especially during peak travel such as spring break.”
The Federal Aviation Administration plans to start furloughing air traffic controllers April 21, which it says could cause flight delays at big airports at the busiest times.
Bart Jansen reports for USA Today. Contributing: Bill Liss of WXIA in Atlanta, Judy Keen in Chicago, William M. Welch in Los Angeles, and Charisse Jones and Sabrina Treitz in New York.