Will government cutbacks hurt travelers?

Although it may be weeks before the full effects of the government sequester are felt, many travelers say that they’re prepared for whatever’s coming down the road.

A mandatory 3 percent cut in the federal budget, which would translate into a 9 percent reduction in the nation’s non-defense discretionary budget for the rest of 2013, could see cutbacks in a wide range of government services, from air traffic controllers to airport security screening.

“The sequester will have a very serious impact on the transportation services that are critical to the traveling public and to the nation’s economy,” Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood declared before the sequester took effect on March 1.

Among the casualties: The “vast majority” of the Federal Aviation Administration’s nearly 47,000 employees will be furloughed for approximately one day per pay period until the end of the fiscal year, according to the secretary. That could translate into flight delays of up to 90 minutes during peak hours between major cities. “These are harmful cuts with real-world consequences,” said LaHood.

But as the negotiations to resolve the budget deadlock imploded at the end of February, air travelers recalled previous slowdowns and work stoppages that they’ve survived. And still others pointed out a fact that seems to be missing from the media coverage of the budget negotiations, at least when it comes to travel: Most Americans still drive to their destinations, and America’s roads will remain open. Cuts to the FAA and the Transportation Security Administration would probably have no meaningful consequences for motorists.

Tedd Evers, who runs a Washington-based travel site, is prepared with his favorite strategy: “When life presents immovable objects, sometimes it’s better to do like Monty Python’s Sir Robin and run away in the opposite direction.”

He encountered an immovable object recently in the form of a “bloqueo” in Costa Rica, a truckers’ strike in which large tractor-trailers created a blockade on all roads going into the capital, San Jose. “We tried every local road imaginable, using broken Spanish to ask locals the way to the airport,” he recalls. “No way in.”

So he decided to bypass San Jose altogether and extend his trip. He canceled his flight and caught a ferry to Malpais, a less developed part of the coast known for its surfing and postcard-perfect beaches. It ended up being his favorite part of the adventure.

If air traffic controllers are furloughed, passengers such as Jill Kraatz won’t be overly concerned. During the air traffic controllers’ strike in 1981, she was headed to Disney World in Orlando with her parents. “When we got to Logan Airport, the strike was in full swing,” remembers Kraatz, an event planner from Oceanside, Calif. “We got to the ticket counter and were informed that our flight was going to have a long delay, and they couldn’t tell us when we could expect to depart. I burst into tears because — well, I was 9, and had spent the entire summer waiting for this trip and now I wasn’t sure I would ever get there.”

As the sobbing girl and her parents walked away from the gate, an agent called them back. Turns out that the early-morning flight to Orlando, which should have left five hours earlier, was still at the gate. If they ran, they could make it. Thanks to the kindness of a gate agent, they arrived in Orlando earlier than expected. “Their strike allowed us an extra few hours of vacation,” she recalls.

Even when there’s no apparent silver lining to a lengthy delay, there’s still a lesson to be learned, says Carol Howell, a homemaker who lives in Phoenix. She recalls returning from San Juan, Puerto Rico, to Phoenix a few years ago when the airline’s computer reservation systems froze, grounding all fights. “No one was going anywhere,” she remembers. For 12 hours, she and her family camped out on the floor of the airport, finding food wherever they could and passing the time by watching the departures board, which never showed more than a two-hour delay.

“Moral of the story?” she asks. “Pack snacks and drinks. Just because you’re stuck in an airport doesn’t mean that there’s food. Be patient. And have cash for vending machines, if you’re lucky enough to find them.”

For most experienced passengers, that’s already baked into the travel planning cake. Anthony Lepore, a Washington lawyer and a frequent flier, says that he never leaves home without the three “Ps”: protein-rich foods such as walnuts or granola bars, extra power for his devices and patience.

“I travel enough to know alternate scenarios available and to have access to the phone numbers of the people I’ll need to reach to re-book my flight, if necessary,” he says. “It helps me avoid the special-service lines.”

And when all else fails, travelers such as Anne Levy say that you should learn to take everything in stride. “Make the best of it,” advises the retired university teacher, who lives in Brighton, Mich. She recalls a catering strike on British Airways a few years ago. When she checked in for her flight from London to Minneapolis, a gate agent handed her a voucher for 100 pounds and told her to buy food for the eight-hour flight.

“We had about 30 minutes to race around buying sandwiches, cookies, cakes and candy,” she remembers. “Any money left on the voucher would be useless, so we really loaded up as much as we could carry. I do recall that Cadbury made a mint on that shopping trip.”

Ah, chocolate. Perhaps the single greatest coping strategy known to travelers.

It’s too soon to tell whether and when air travelers will be affected by the sequester. It probably won’t happen this month. My Southwest Airlines flight from Orlando to Denver the day after the sequester went into effect departed on time, and we experienced no delays at the TSA screening area.

That could change in April, when the anticipated cuts will be in full swing. But if a deal is reached, it may never happen. More reassuring, perhaps, is that most travelers — those traveling by car — won’t see any significant change in the way they get to their destination.

For the rest of us, a little planning and preparation will get us through. And if that fails, there’s always chocolate.

Will the sequester hurt travelers?

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Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is an author, journalist and consumer advocate. You can read more about him on his personal website or contact him at chris@elliott.org. Got a question or comment? You can post it on the new forum.

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  • Jeanne_in_NE

    “And if that fails, there’s always chocolate.”

    @Christopher Elliott, I think that’s the most profound thing you’ve ever said! :)

    Seriously, though, our local airport, Eppley Airfield, and the smaller airports in Nebraska run very lean operations as it stands now. The enforced furloughs have been discussed in local news as a potential major obstacles in getting to the larger airports and hubs. Won’t know until it actually happens – is the sky falling, or is it not? But it is a subject of much conjecture, even here in flyover country. I thought your article was a good example of how the sky is *not* falling.

  • TonyA_says

    Just recently flew back into JKF right in time for the snow :-(
    Was so scared I would see endless lines at the airport, according to the newspaper articles. But…
    No problem there with the number of Immigration officers.
    In fact there were too many Agriculture and Customs folks with not much to do since most passengers didn’t have money for shopping or didn’t bring food in.

  • technomage1

    For the DoD anyway, the cuts will really start to hurt in April. The sky isn’t falling – yet.

  • http://elliott.org Christopher Elliott

    I’m glad you liked the chocolate line!

  • Pauline

    But Chris: you’re forgetting the other impacts the sequester will have on travelers, namely fewer services, and limited hours at many of the nation’s National Parks. We’ve already seen tours of the White House cancelled for coming months, a bit blow to DC-bound travelers. Those are just the first of the cancellations at state-operated parks and monuments we’ll be seeing and they’re being done simply because the money ain’t there. I hope we can solve this with chocolate. Frankly, I’d rather our legislators do their job and handle this mess.

  • Traveling Salesman

    I voted YES, it will hurt travelers. The reason is not so straight forward. The White House has “DECREED” that these cuts SHOULD HURT. Not that the loss of funding is so great, just that POLITICALLY, they want us to notice and then to put blame on the”bad guys”.
    I can not wait for the announcement that CONGRESS will have to carry snacks and a brown bag lunch, because funding cuts have closed their Gourmet Cafeteria, or that they have to go to regular hair salons because of a closure of their $2.00 salon.
    Why is it, the first cuts to a budget are to Police, Fire, and Schools. When did they cut the Congressional staffing budget, or travel budget? When will they reduce the number of Federal Assistants to Assistants to Deputy Underlings?

    Simple fact, in the LAST recession (yes, under Geo. W. Bush, the number of private jobs went up 1% and the number of federal jobs went up 15%.


  • rgoltsch

    Having just flown this past week through Newark, Chicago, Appleton, WI, and Kansas City, I have to say that the only place I saw longer lines were in Newark on Monday. In most places, especially the smaller airports like Appleton seem to be overstaffed for the traffic they receive. If the sequester cuts these places down, few would ever see any effects.

    And I have a radical idea, how about the TSA effectively utilizes their people better? How many times have we all seen TSA agents standing around doing nothing while multiple lanes are closed at the checkpoints? If they aren’t working, send them home. If they are working, open up another lane.

  • BMG4ME

    In the past didn’t this result in taxes not being collected, or was that something else? Perhaps this will result in less TSA activity at airports. That could only be good.

  • TonyA_says

    Here’s a great article about Sequestration, whatever that means.


    Sequestration reduces the rate of increase in federal spending. It does not cut a penny of actual (nominal) spending.
    The CBO’s estimate of the reduction in increased spending between 2012 and 2013 is $43 billion, not $85 billion.
    Total federal spending in 2012 was $3.53 trillion. The President’s budget request for 2013 was $3.59 trillion, an increase of $68 billion (about 2%). Under sequestration, total federal spending in 2013 will be $3.55 trillion, an increase of only $25 billion (a little less than 1%).
    Did you catch that? Under sequestration, total federal spending goes up, just by less than it would have gone up without sequestration. This is what the Narrative calls a “cut” in spending! It’s as if you asked your boss for a 10% raise, and got only a 5% raise, then told your friends you got a 5% pay cut.
    Of course, these are nominal figures. In real terms, expenditures could go down, depending on the rate of inflation. Even so, the cuts would be tiny — 1 or 2%.
    The news media also talk a lot about “debt reduction,” but what they mean is a reduction in the rate at which the debt increases. Even with sequestration, there is a projected budget deficit — the government will spend more than it takes in — during every year until 2023, the last year of the CBO estimates. The Narrative grudgingly admits that sequestration might be necessary to reduce the national debt, but sequestration doesn’t even do that. It’s as if you went on a “dramatic” weight-loss plan by gaining 5 pounds every year instead of 10.

  • Extra mail

    But, the TSA managed to squeeze in a $50 million line item a couple of days before the sequester so they can buy new $1000 a person uniform for agents. Can’t believe you didn’t mention that, Chris. Maybe Eric Holder will have to quit using private jets to fly all over the country on “official” business. Nah! Rather make the sheep wait even longer in security lines.

  • Extra mail

    Our government at work. Funny how I managed to cut back on spending as the government raises my taxes but that same government bitches about a reduction in spending increases. It’d be funny if it wasn’t so scary!

  • TonyA_says

    Yup. In addition to the invisible inflation (denying it even exists), Uncle Sam got more out of my paycheck. The result is that I buy less.

    If you read Mainstream American press about 15 years of deflation in Japan and the horrible missing generation over there, AND THEN YOU VISIT JAPAN, you won’t see anything close to what the press is talking about. It is almost impossible to understand what is really going on because our PRESS (media) is so corrupt.

  • Grant Ritchie

    You just inspired me to email my Congressman and both of my Senators with the exact suggestion you just made… close your subsidized cafeterias and raise the price of your haircuts from two to 10 dollars before you close the White House tours for kids on spring break. Thanks for the nudge.

  • ArizonaRoadWarrior

    Most of the clothes for the TSA uniform were made in China…so the $ 50 MM doesn’t even help US citizens.

  • TonyA_says

    From FAA Statistics (Fact Sheet) http://www.faa.gov/news/fact_sheets/news_story.cfm?newsId=14374

    In 2012 total landings and takeoffs at combined FAA and contract towers were down 0.3% from 2011. Air carrier activity increased by 0.1% while commuter/air taxi activity decreased by 3.1%.

    Domestic enplanements on mainline and regional air carriers increased from 650.1M in 2011 to 653.7M (0.6%) in 2012. Domestic mainline carrier enplanements increased 1.3% while domestic regional carrier enplanements decreased 1.7%.

    Is there any need to increase airport or FAA budgets considering this data?

  • DavidYoung2

    The FAA should immediately suspend all PRIVATE AVIATION to focus any and all resources on commercial aviation. Let the fat cats have their $35 million Gulfstream V’s grounded and forced to fly commercial. I’ll bet a few phone calls from their billionaire masters about having to mingle with the unwashed masses will get Congress to ‘fix’ the problem immediately.

  • cahdot

    well the SEQUESTER is not a budget cut..it is just not an increase in any funding
    also it is not a budget cut BECAUSE the libs do not want a BUDGET so we have none

  • History Geek

    On the bright side, the sequester should limit the number of VIPR teams let loose around the country!

  • Mike

    Should this be a yes or no question or a little or a lot question? Where I answered yes and believe that to be the correct answer, I do not believe the disruption will be nearly as bad as some have speculated.

  • oldft

    when you’re up to your armpits in liquid manure, does an extra 3% matter?

  • kenish

    @David- You’re apparently unaware of the huge volume of general aviation, most of which isn’t fat cats in G5’s. Cargo, agricultural, charters, small companies, etc. Airlines are a minority of aircraft, flights, airports and their contribution to the economy, though huge, isn’t as large a percentage of aviation as most people think. Also, GA is a minimal user of FAA services…much is VFR and literally “off the radar”. The highway analogy to your comment would be “Suspend all private autos to get the attention of the fat cats in their Lamborghinis. Focus on Greyhound buses instead”.

    I do agree government officials and Congress need to fly in Economy like everyone else.