Federal budget cuts lead to customs delays, missed flights at MIA

Some international travelers waited more than four hours to clear customs at Miami International Airport last weekend. No one is predicting what delays this weekend might bring.

03/19/2013 4:24 PM

03/20/2013 10:32 AM

So many international passengers missed their connecting flights at Miami International Airport last weekend that about 200 of them had to bed down at the airport’s auditorium, for one night turned into a makeshift hotel.

Blame federal budget cuts known as the sequester, which have limited overtime pay for U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers.

The result: fewer officers at passport checkpoints, leading to waits more than four hours long last Saturday, the worst day of delays since the sequester began March 1. MIA is the nation’s busiest airport for international flights.

“I’d use the word brutal,” Airport Director José Abreu said of the delays.

The county-owned airport had already been experiencing a shortage of customs officers before the beginning of the sequester, which cut 2 percent of the $3.8 trillion federal budget. Visiting MIA last month, U.S. Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano warned passenger lines could get even longer. They did.

“Customs officers who would normally come in a little earlier or stay a little later with overtime pay — that’s gone now,” said Greg Chin, an airport spokesman.

A survey of 1,200 overseas travelers released Tuesday by the Consensus Research Group for the U.S. Travel Association found that 43 percent of respondents would recommend avoiding traveling through the U.S. because of the customs process. That negative word of mouth could cost the economy billions of dollars and hundreds of thousands of jobs, the travel association estimated.

MIA has issued an advisory on its website warning about longer-than-usual wait times for passengers arriving from international destinations. In the past few weeks, staffers have handed out some 15,000 water bottles to travelers waiting in line or forced to spend the night at the airport, Chin said.

Delays have been particularly heavy from Fridays to Mondays, when traffic at the airport increases by about 10,000 passengers — in part because that’s when many cruises depart and arrive, Chin said. Add Spring Break, the Ultra Music Festival and the Sony Open tennis tournament, and matters only get worse.

“This is probably one of the worst times for this to happen,” Chin said.

On Saturday at the North Terminal checkpoint where customs officers process 70 to 75 percent of international arrivals, passenger waits averaged 30 minutes to an hour longer than before the sequester, according to the airport.

Between 3 p.m. and 5 p.m., it took most passengers an hour just to get into the passport-control facility — and another three hours to clear the checkpoint. During that two-hour period, about two-thirds to three-quarters of the facility’s 72 booths were staffed, airport numbers show. The delays also increase when flights arrive closely behind each other.

More than 800 American Airlines passengers missed their connections Saturday, Chin said. The airline accounts for about 75 percent of arrivals, so it is likely that some 1,000 travelers were unable to complete their trips. Airport staffers brought in cots and blankets to accommodate 200 passengers in the auditorium overnight.

“We are working to minimize the impact on our customers and are rebooking passengers who misconnect on the next available flights,” said Dori Alvarez, an American Airlines spokeswoman.

Delays were only slightly better two Saturdays ago, on March 2, the second-worst day for passenger waits since the sequester began. That day, lines averaged 20 to 30 minutes longer than usual, with two to four hour waits between 6 a.m. and 8 a.m., when only about a quarter of the passport-control booths were staffed.

The new $180 million facility has been understaffed since it opened in July. Gov. Rick Scott and South Florida members of Congress have urged Homeland Security to send more customs officers. Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez has offered to pick up the tab for their overtime pay, but that would require congressional action allowing local governments to underwrite federal costs.

Abreu and Chin said the sequester has not affected passengers checking in for departing flights so far. But that could soon change: The Transportation Security Administration may begin furloughing MIA agents next month.

“That could affect things,” Chin said.

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