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Sequester already causing long lines at airports, Napolitano says

Within days of sequestration's official enactment, lines at some major airports were already doubling, leading to longer wait times and potential future headaches for travelers, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano told reporters today.


Napolitano, speaking at an event this morning sponsored by Politico, said that a number of major airports had seen lines balloon to 150-200 percent their normal size. Among the airports she mentioned were Los Angeles International and Chicago's O'Hare, though she said she'd have to double-check the specific sites to be sure.

"If you're traveling, get to the airport earlier than you otherwise would," she warned. "There's only so much we can do with personnel, and please don't yell at the customs officers or the TSA officers, they are not responsible for sequester."

The delays appear to have been specific to those dealing with customs and not TSA security lines; customs cut back on overtime after the sequester kicked in while TSA has yet to adjust overtime or furlough any employees.

According to the Customs and Border Protection agency (CBP), sequestration led to spikes in wait times at the top two international gateway airports on Saturday alone, largely resulting from reduced staffing. The CBP says 25-40 percent of booths would normally be staffed with officers on overtime, which has been reduced as a result of sequestration.

At John F. Kennedy International Airport (JFK) in New York, CBP said there were approximately 56 flights with wait times in excess of 2 hours, and 14 flights over 3 hours. Miami International Airport (MIA) reported 51 flights over 2 hours, and 4 flights approached/exceeded 3 hours. According to the CBP, those wait times are uncharacteristic and a result of reduced staffing.

"Due to sequestration, CBP reduced overtime this weekend at Ports of Entry around the country and effects are already visible," the department said in a statement. "Lanes that would have previously been open due to overtime staffing were closed, further exacerbating wait times at airports with typically longer international arrival processes."

The consequences of sequestration are expected to get worse with time, particularly as federal departments implement widespread furloughs beginning next month. Hiring freezes, another step many departments say they'll take to pare down budget costs, are expected to have a similar effect.

"As sequestration takes effect, travelers can expect to see lines and wait times increase as reductions to overtime and the inability to backfill positions for attrition begin to occur this month," according to a statement by the Transportation Security Authority (TSA). "While wait times can vary on a number of factors, due to the reductions mandated by sequestration, TSA will put in place a hiring freeze, which will result in up to an additional 1,000 [transportation security officer] vacancies by Memorial Day Weekend and up to 2,600 vacancies by the end of the fiscal year."

According to the TSA, wait times of more than 30-40 minutes could double at "nearly all of the largest airports" during busy travel periods due to the decrease in overall staffing, and those flying at non-peak times can also expect to see a bump in wait times.