Customs officials say travelers entering the U.S. already are facing delays at large airports because of federal spending cuts and predict worse problems are on the way.
Agencies within the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) initiated a hiring freeze and reduced overtime immediately after the $85 billion in spending cuts across the government began Friday.
Customs and Border Protection says it reduced its number of checkpoint lanes to cut overtime staffing over the weekend, and waiting times for arriving passengers clearing checkpoints spiked at some airports.
Typically 25 to 40 percent of the lanes at two top international gateways -- New York's JFK airport and Miami International -- would have been staffed with employees on overtime, according to the agency.
On Saturday morning at JFK, the agency says, passengers from 56 flights waited over two hours to clear customs, and passengers from 14 flights waited longer than three hours. In Miami, passengers from 51 flights waited longer than two hours, and passengers from four flights had to wait longer than three hours.
"These wait times are not typical for this time period and are related to decreased booth staffing," the agency says.
Even in Canada, Montreal's CJAD news radio reports U.S.-bound passengers flying from Montreal-Trudeau Airport "are being greeted this week with posted advisories of possible delays while going (through) pre-boarding American customs checks."
Furlough notices are scheduled to go out Thursday to employees, which will further increase wait times at customs, the agency says.
Congressional Republicans have voiced skepticism that agencies need to reduce staffing for travelers to deal with the spending cuts.
But Janet Napolitano, secretary of Homeland Security, said Monday that wait times at customs checkpoints and at Transportation Security Administration(TSA) security checkpoints for departing passengers will get longer with reduced overtime and a hiring freeze even before furloughs begin in a month.
"We will see these effects cascade over the next week," Napolitano told a breakfast sponsored by the Politico news organization. "I don't mean to scare. I mean to inform. If you're traveling, get to the airport earlier than you otherwise would."
The TSA has warned that reduced overtime and a hiring freeze could ultimately result in double wait times at security checkpoints.
Because of turnover, the hiring freeze is projected to leave 1,000 TSA positions open by Memorial Day and 2,600 by the end of September, the agency projects.
"With TSA staffing levels decreasing over time, we expect that during busy travel periods wait times exceeding 30 to 40 minutes could double at nearly all of the largest airports," the agency warns. "In addition, passengers who schedule their travel outside of peak flight schedules and plan to arrive close to their scheduled flight time may see their wait times now reach 30 minutes or more."
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The TSA, which had about 1,700 passenger and luggage screeners this summer at MIA, decided it could make do with less.