Has the sequestration actually resulted in a huge increase to airport security wait times? We used the (not very helpful) tools available online to find out!
A caveat at the outset. Sequestration has been in effect for three days. While the White House and Homeland Security head Janet Napolitano weren't shy in raising the spectre of multi-hour waits, the timeline for that happening was left a bit vague, depending on when the department began to furlough Transportation Security Administration workers. Nonetheless, as The Hill reported last week, we were assured that there would at some point be problems:
"At the major international airports, we will be limited in accepting new international flights, and average wait times to clear customs will increase by as much as 50 percent, and at our busiest airports, like Newark and JFK, LAX and O'Hare, peak wait times which can reach over two hours could easily grow to four hours or more," Napolitano said.
"Such delays will cause thousands of missed passenger connections daily, with economic consequences at both the local and the national levels," she continued.
Napolitano also said, "I'm not here to scare people," though reporters were unable to determine if she had her fingers crossed. In USA Today this morning, she was more explicit.
"We will see these effects cascade over the next week," Napolitano adds, saying lines were "150 percent to 200 percent as long as we would usually expect."
Napolitano is actually making two different predictions here: One is that people will spend hours waiting to clear customs, the other is that there will be a percentage increase in waiting. So, have these scenarios already arrived? Well, sort of.
We looked at three airports that share real-time information on security line wait times: Hartsfield-Jackson in Atlanta, Houston Intercontinental Airport, and Washington Dulles. We then compared the average wait times across terminals at noon today with the estimates listed at iFly.com which uses data from the TSA.
The worst was Dulles, who are seeing wait times 600 percent longer than normal. That sounds worse than it actually is: the wait time was running at 7 minutes compared to the 1-minute historical average. By percentage, Houston was faring better, some 282 percent higher. And Atlanta, the busiest in the country, was 125 percent slower than normal. (Kind of, anyway. Atlanta listed its wait times at noon as "under 10 minutes," which we counted as nine minutes, assuming the worst.) If you assume that this data is correct and noon is a representative time period for security lines to backed up, then waits are up, but not by more than a few minutes.
Still, this is the beauty of Napolitano's argument: security line waits almost always feel insufferably long, given that they're an impediment between you and the flight you need to catch. Get a few that are longer than average, and the TSA's argument against furloughs is made, regardless of what the waits look like in reality across the board. Will having fewer staff affect wait times? Almost certainly. Will the horrible experience of waiting in a corral for your turn to be ogled and zapped feel worse? Hard to say.
One place you won't want to turn for updates on security wait times: the TSA's mobile-optimized tool. Not because the TSA is biased in presenting the information (indeed, the data is submitted by travelers) but because the data you get may not be particularly helpful. Headed to LaGuardia's Concourse D right now? You'll be happy to know that the wait time was 11-20 minutes — 17 days ago.