Spending cuts will mean longer waits at airports

WASHINGTON – The travel industry is bracing for significant disruptions starting March 1, if automatic federal spending cuts reduce staffing of air-traffic controllers and checkpoint security officers as scheduled.

“This truly could become a nightmare for travel,” Geoff Freeman, chief operating officer of the U.S. Travel Association, says of anticipated flight delays, longer security lines before flights and customs lines after arriving from abroad.

He says the threatened cuts appear likely because Congress is out of session this week and the deadline fast approaching for $85 billion in across-the-board spending cuts. A compromise remains elusive as congressional Republicans criticize President Barack Obama for proposing to avert the automatic cuts by mixing spending cuts with closing tax loopholes.

“This is an enormous concern to those of us in the travel industry and should be a concern across the country,” Freeman says.

Scott Lilly, a longtime congressional appropriations staffer who now is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress think tank, says this situation is different from the government shutdown in 1995.

Because the cuts hit all agencies, Lilly said, the Federal Aviation Administration will be hit even though air-traffic control is so important to people’s ability to travel. Air-traffic control was spared during the 1995 shutdown.

“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.

He voiced frustration with the lack of information about what will be cut, such as which airports or which flights might be affected by fewer air-traffic controllers. He is scheduled to fly to Turkey in May, but is reluctant if the cuts aren’t fixed by then because of the prospect of long customs lines coming back.

“The wait times are going to be horrific,” Lilly said. “I can’t stand getting into (Washington) Dulles at 4 in the afternoon after a 10-hour flight and then have to wait in the normal lines they have.”

Jean Medina, spokeswoman for the trade group for U.S. airlines, Airlines for America, says travelers deserve responsible action from Congress and the Obama administration.

If the cuts aren’t averted, Medina said, “Congress and the president must find a way to amend the indiscriminate nature of the cuts so they don’t impact our air transportation system, which is a major driver of the economy.”

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