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Sequestration and Travel: What You Need to Know

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Sequestration, the successor to the fiscal cliff of early 2013, will affect travelers in the United States if mandated budget cuts go into effect. These automatic cuts were designed to be so draconian and distasteful that Congress would be forced to deal with the fact that it has not passed a budget resolution since 2009 and tackle the twin problems of cutting spending and increasing revenue rather than risk the disaster of sequestration-triggered spending cuts. This has not happened; instead, Congress, Cabinet secretaries and President Obama have spent time telling the public just what these automatic spending cuts will mean, should they indeed take effect on March 1, 2013, or on a later date if a short term "kick the can down the road" compromise can be reached.

If sequestration does happen, the traveling public will see the results of these across-the-board budget cuts in several ways.

Air Traffic Control / Flight Delays

Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood has announced that sequestration will result in $600 million in cuts to the Federal Aviation Administration's budget. Employees, including air traffic controllers, will be furloughed one or two days each pay period. According to the Department of Transportation's official blog, these furloughs will cause delays in air travel, perhaps as long as 90 minutes, because fewer air traffic controllers will be on the job. In addition, many air traffic control towers at small airports will be closed altogether.

Airport Security Screening

Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano testified before a Senate Committee on Appropriations on February 14, 2013. She stated that Transportation Security Administration airport security screening officers would be furloughed if sequestration takes effect, resulting in screening delays of up to one hour at busy airports in the US. This would mean that airline passengers would need to arrive at the airport at least one hour earlier than their airlines' recommended arrival time.

Border Crossing Wait Times

Secretary Napolitano also testified that border crossing wait times would increase because US Customs and Border Patrol employees would be subject to furloughs and staffing reductions. Border crossing wait times are already long at popular crossing points, and the problem would be exacerbated if sequestration takes effect.

National Park Service Programs

The National Park Service will lose 5% of its budget if sequestration occurs, and National Park Service Director Jonathan Jarvis has predicted reductions in operating hours, visitor services, special programs, preservation efforts and construction projects. For visitors, these cuts may mean that your favorite park might be closed when you want to visit, or that services you expect when you visit a National Park or Monument, such as ranger programs or tours, might not be available.

Air Shows

Military air shows are extremely popular events, drawing thousands of visitors and pumping plenty of money into local economies. Under the threat of sequestration, base commanders are strongly considering canceling air shows, feeling that public entertainment, regardless of its potential recruiting power, is much less important than operational readiness, particularly when funds are limited. Some 2013 air shows have already been canceled, including Joint Base Langley's annual air show in Virginia and the Wings Over Wayne Open House and Air Show at Seymour Johnson Air Force Base in North Carolina.

Secret Service Investigations

The Secret Service, part of the Department of Homeland Security, also faces budget cuts if Congress allows sequestration to happen. For travelers, Secret Service furloughs and budget cuts will mainly be felt in the areas of debit card / ATM fraud, bank fraud and cyber crime investigations. While fraud protection laws will not change, the Secret Service will have fewer man hours to devote to chasing down fraudsters.

What You Can Do

Plan for travel delays at the airport and at border crossings. Allow plenty of time for the airport security screening process, unanticipated flight delays and waiting at the Mexican or Canadian border. When booking air travel, give yourself two hours between connecting flights if you are departing from a large US airport.

If you are traveling to a national park, monument or seashore, check hours and programs before you book your trip. Don't rely on guidebooks; get up-to-date information from the National Park Service website.

Monitor your bank accounts on a regular basis. Call your bank if you notice any withdrawals from your account that you did not initiate, even if they are for one or two cents. Take steps to protect yourself against ATM fraud when you travel.

Write to your Representative and Senators if you are unhappy with the current state of affairs.

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