The delays were mostly limited to weekend travelers and have primarily affected international passengers moving through customs, officials said.
In the Washington area, officials at Reagan National, Dulles International and Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall airports said the cuts have not had an immediate effect on passenger wait times.
Customs and border officials said delays will become widespread as the department begins furloughing employees. Officials at the Department of Homeland Security — which includes customs and border protection officers as well as Transportation Security Administration screeners — said furlough letters are expected to go out to employees on Thursday.
On Monday, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said during a Politico event that wait times at some airports were “150 to 200 percent as long as we would normally expect.” She cited airports in Los Angeles, Atlanta and Chicago as examples, although she said she would have to check to be certain.
Democratic lawmakers and the White House have used the specter of long security lines and delayed flights to make their case that the mandatory budget cuts put into place because of the sequester are a bad idea. Many Republicans have pushed back, demanding more information and arguing that agencies such as the Federal Aviation Administration are able to absorb spending reductions without compromising the safety or efficiency.
Napolitano said the public should prepare for longer waits in coming days as the impact of the sequester begins to ripple throughout the system.
At TSA, where a hiring freeze is expected to be put into place, officials anticipate there will be 1,000 security officer vacancies by Memorial Day weekend. That number could grow to 2,600 by the end of the fiscal year. Cutbacks at the FAA also could mean flight delays if fewer air-traffic controllers are staffing airport towers, officials said.
As a result, transportation officials said, current wait times of 30 to 40 minutes could double at the nation’s largest airports during busy travel periods. Even those flying at non-peak times can expect longer waits, officials said.
Even if waits are not as lengthy as feared, travel industry representatives worry that chronic delays could still have a serious impact.
“We’re a perception-related business,” said Geoff Freeman, president of the U.S. Travel Association. “If it’s the perception, it becomes the reality and travelers may go and spend their money somewhere else.”