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Frustrated air travelers feel the pain of sequestration

The airport drama that I witnessed Sunday is just one example of how government doesn’t work in 2013.

A Transportation Security Agency officer working at Washington's Reagan National Airport.
REUTERS/Larry Downing

It was a picture perfect spring morning in Washington D.C. on Sunday, with the landscape dominated by spectacular pink blooms on cherry blossom trees and thousands of athletes taking part in a 10-mile race near the Washington Monument.

Thoughts about the physical beauty of Washington quickly faded when I was faced with the ugly byproducts of political gridlock between President Obama and Congress.

After arriving at Reagan National Airport for a return flight to the Twin Cities, I entered a security line at 9:30 a.m. Sunday It took until 10:48 a.m. — one hour and 18 minutes — to get cleared by the Transportation Security Administration (TSA).

When I got in the security line in Terminal B, the line was so long that I couldn’t even see the screeners. But shortly after I entered the line, a uniformed TSA employee walked through the area and explained that it was going to be a long wait because of “sequestration.” Some of their usual staffers were not on duty because of sequestration cuts.

Because of the failure of Washington’s politicians to make intelligent spending choices and set priorities, the American public is stuck with an across-the-board or unthinking meat-ax approach.

I explained the politics of the situation to a Canadian man who was waiting in line near me, and then inched along with other travelers who could be described as angry, frustrated or frantic.

90 minutes early

I arrived at the security line 90 minutes before my Delta Air Lines flight was scheduled to start boarding. So I wasn’t in peril during this sorry Sunday saga. But I was able to see the destructive effects of operating a single security checkpoint in Terminal B as hundreds of new passengers kept streaming into the terminal every few minutes.

Shortly after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, we began to hear the term “hassle factor” to describe the extensive screening that would be needed to check people and bags. We all learned to quickly take off our shoes, belts and jackets and put little liquid containers in plastic bags. We endured full body screening.

Now, you can overlay the unpredictability of sequestration effects onto airport travel. Take a look at the website of the federal Transportation Security Administration. The TSA states that its mission is to “protect the nation’s transportation systems to ensure freedom of movement for people and commerce.”

It cannot successfully fulfill that mission if it doesn’t have adequate staffing.

One of the casualties of Sunday’s TSA staffing shortage was a woman who had visited relatives in D.C. and was headed to Milwaukee. She was next to me in line and said that she needed to get back to work on Monday morning. Her flight was earlier than mine and she managed to move up in the line, but she came back several minutes later, shook her head and said there was no way she could be screened in time to catch her flight. She abandoned the security line to go to the United ticket counter to see if she could get booked on a later flight.

Movement on the line was painstakingly slow from 9:30 a.m. to 10:20 a.m. because the screeners were using only one checkpoint. But there was plenty of action among Delta Air Lines customer service employees. Several of them kept walking up and down the big line to pull passengers out who had flights that would soon be departing.

The Delta employees were helping harried passengers get into a priority lane, but that assistance went only so far because everybody had to snake through the same checkpoint.

Line creeps along

When the line was creeping along and people’s high stress levels were on full display, I desperately wished that a few TV news crews would arrive to capture the scene. Perhaps if CNN or Fox News had a live feed of the airport screening backup it might light a fire under the politicians to make rational decisions and fund federal agencies.

Or better yet, I wish actor Alec Baldwin had been in Terminal B Sunday morning. I don’t think he would have patiently waited well over an hour to clear security. A tweet from Baldwin would shine a public spotlight on the problem.

After 50 minutes of being stuck in line, I finally gained some hope when a second checkpoint was opened.

Yet, at that juncture, passengers were fending for themselves and people seemed to be merging into lines from all directions. I struck up a conversation with two delightful women from Houston as we waited our turns and a TSA agent checking IDs asked a 7-year-old boy for his age. The child was waved ahead.

One of my new friends from Houston was incredibly fearful she was going to miss her flight. All of the color drained from her face when she looked at me after the conveyor belt was stopped and a screener summoned a co-worker to open up and hand check my luggage. The Houston woman’s bag was trapped behind mine.

The contents of my navy suitcase passed inspection and I was free to find my Delta Air Lines gate at 10:48 a.m.

Once on board my flight bound for the Twin Cities, I met Gary and Karla Maddock of Bismarck, N.D. They had been in the nation’s capital for an AMVETS meeting. Gary served in the Air Force and said the TSA screening delay linked to sequestration is the latest evidence of playing politics. “Congress could have done a lot more a long time ago” to resolve the budget conflicts, he said, after standing in the security line for more than an hour.

From Karla’s perspective, she bluntly said the long TSA wait “was ridiculous.” Coming on a weekend of the Cherry Blossom Festival and the end of spring break, she said, the limited staffing was particularly ill-timed. “They know far ahead what flights are full,” she said.

The unhappy scene at Reagan National on Sunday could be just the start of increased aggravation for passengers and more headaches for the commercial airlines.

The airlines can’t fly passengers from Point A to Point B on time if their passengers can’t get to the planes on time.

Only one effect

Yet slow passenger screening is only one effect of the federal cuts. A few days ago, Delta announced that sequester cuts across the federal government are already hurting its bookings.

The nation’s economic recovery remains in a fragile state, so it is even more critical for business people to have access to commercial air travel that is time efficient. If it becomes routine to wait 60 to 90 minutes for clearing security, the loss of worker productivity would be staggering. At Reagan National, officials are monitoring delays and encouraging passengers to arrive at the airport two hours in advance of domestic flights.

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A huge statue of the late President Ronald Reagan greets passengers as they arrive at Reagan National. Although Reagan is a Republican icon, he and Democratic House Speaker Tip O’Neill found ways to work together for the American people. The airport drama that I witnessed on Sunday morning is just one example of how government doesn’t work in 2013.

The airlines, passengers, business and consumer groups will be watching to see if the TSA logjams become more frequent.

If the political dysfunction in Washington prevents the TSA from doing its job properly, we may finally see a voter revolt.

Fedor can be reached at lfedor@minnpost.com. Fedor is on Twitter @LizFedor