Travel disruptions could well be the way everyday Americans will see and feel the impact of the impending sequester, the mandatory federal spending cuts scheduled to go into effect on March 1.
The spending cuts threaten to delay airline flights by reducing the work hours of air traffic controllers. Passengers could also see longer lines at airport security checkpoints and at customs and immigration processing for international flights.
The National Park Service will be affected, as will other federal agencies that oversee public lands and recreation areas. Numerous other federal programs that affect travel in indirect ways will also be affected.
Sequestration is, by definition, an automatic across-the-board spending cut for numerous federal agencies. Barring further congressional action, it is set to go into effect on March 1. The prevailing view in Washington last week was that no new budget agreement was in sight and the sequester would most likely take effect — at least temporarily, until the public outcry becomes politically unacceptable.
According to documents that federal departments have submitted to Congress about their plans, most agencies will cope with the cut by, among other things, putting employees on administrative leave or unpaid furlough for rotating periods, such as two, three or four workdays per month.
The FAA, for example, faces a $600 million shortfall, and according to Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, the “vast majority of the FAA’s nearly 47,000 employees will be furloughed for approximately one day per [two-week] pay period until the end of the fiscal year in September, with a maximum of two days per pay period.”
LaHood and the heads of numerous other departments outlined their plans in letters to the Senate Appropriations Committee earlier this month.
Homeland Security reported, for example, that its Transportation Security Administration (TSA) “would need to initiate a hiring freeze, … eliminate overtime and furlough its 50,000 officers for up to seven days.”
DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano also advised the Senate that “Customs and Border Protection would have to reduce its work hours by the equivalent of over 5,000 Border Patrol agents and the equivalent of over 2,750 CBP officers.”
The Interior Department reported that “the public should be prepared for reduced hours and services” at national parks.
The Democratic members of the House Appropriations Committee also issued a report on the likely impact of the cuts, noting, among other things, that as much as 10% of the FAA’s workforce would be on furlough on any given day.
The House members also reported that the CBP would not be able to maintain current staffing levels, increasing wait times at land ports of entry and airports, while jeopardizing security.
“At the busiest airports, the increase in peak airport wait times would regularly reach three or more hours,” the report said.
Secretary of State John Kerry told the Senate that the sequester would cut $850 million from various State Department operations, including those relating to travel.
Kerry said the cuts would “limit our ability to provide ongoing and emergency assistance to U.S. citizens abroad and curtail our efforts to facilitate foreign travel to the U.S.”
All of this has raised a red flag for the travel industry, particularly after President Obama warned in a speech on Feb. 19 that “air traffic controllers and airport security will see cutbacks, which means more delays.”
Roger Dow, president of the U.S. Travel Association, said, “Travel has the very real potential of becoming the face of the March 1 sequester cuts.”
Dow urged Congress to take immediate action and asked travelers to join U.S. Travel’s mobile messaging campaign to send that message to Congress. When travelers text the word “DELAYED” to 877-877, U.S. Travel said it would send back “easy instructions on how to share their opinions with Washington legislators.”
It’s impossible to predict the precise impacts of the sequester on specific airports or federal services and facilities, because the administration is generally not advertising where and when specific employee furloughs will occur.
However, the Coalition of National Park Service Retirees spelled out in some detail just how the budget cuts could play out.
According to the coalition, the spring openings of key portions of Yellowstone and Yosemite national parks would be significantly delayed, emergency response help for drivers in the Great Smoky Mountains would be reduced and visitor access at the Cape Cod National Seashore as well as at many campgrounds, comfort stations and trails would be restricted.
Grand Canyon National Park will reduce hours of operations at the main visitors center and delay opening the scenic East and West Rim Drives; staff shortages at Denali National Park in Alaska will delay the opening of the Eielson Visitor Center.
“Millions of Americans depend upon national parks,” said coalition official Joan Anzelmo. “Those Americans are being told that national parks don’t count, that people who use national parks don’t count and that people who live and work near national parks don’t count.”