Travelling through US airports gets even worse

The US air travel system is fragile at the best of times. The major airports are so loaded with air traffic that a technical glitch or a thunderstorm in one city can cause a cascade of delays and flight cancellations that can affect the national system for hours or days.

It is a problem that can cascade all the way to Sydney and Perth as tens of thousands of Australians make their way to the States for the northern summer.

Even at the best of times, Australians must allow plenty of time to clear customs and immigration at gateway cities like Los Angeles and San Francisco, since around 70 per cent are headed to points beyond the west coast, according to the statistics.

My own rule of thumb is to allow a minimum of three hours between my international arrival and an onward domestic flight in the US, even though some airlines list 90-minute connections – even 70-minute connections in the case of less congested hubs like Dallas-Fort Worth.

But the indications are that an extra level of caution will be required for the coming summer as the US government and Congress conduct a very public negotiation about the country’s ability to pay its debts.

In the past month, “sequestration” has begun to affect airlines and airports as tens of thousands of government employees are forced to take compulsory time off and even more innocent economies like banning overtime as part of the overall effort to save $US85 billion in government spending.

This is affecting huge federal bureaucracies like the Transportation Security Administration, which controls all airport passenger scanning – probably the biggest creator of queues and delays at US airports.

But it also affects customs and immigration, through which all international visitors are processed with increased scrutiny since the terrorist attacks of 2001, and – unseen  by visitors – the vast workforce of the Federal Aviation Administration, which initially was forced to “furlough” 47,000 people, including 13,000 air traffic controllers, when the sequester took effect in March.

However, the latest word is that the controllers will be reinstated as new legislative amendments are passed to give the FAA access to temporary funds until September 30.

With significant flight delays already being experienced as a result of short staffing in air traffic control towers, the populous north-east of America has breathed a sigh of relief as the summer holidays approach.

What’s fascinating to me is that travel consumers are in the front line of America’s major domestic political issue. Australian travellers can only dream about having so much clout in Canberra, where, as I’ve commented previously, they’re regarded as little more than an ATM that politicians can turn to as a source of funds for their favourite social projects.

According to an opinion poll last week, Americans almost equally blamed the Republican-dominated Congress and the Democrat president for flight delays they’d experienced in the past few weeks.

It certainly is going to affect Australian carriers like Qantas if the situation deteriorates in the coming months. Qantas has up to four flights a day arriving at Los Angeles, but also is the only foreign carrier that operates its own 747s between Los Angeles and New York’s John F. Kennedy airport.

As regular travellers know, delays in and out of JFK can be horrendous, even without a government  budget controversy hanging over the air transport industry.

“Our flights have been unaffected and the impact on domestic services in the US has been addressed by temporary measures in Congress – but obviously we’ll keep monitoring the situation,” a Qantas spokesman says.

Even so, if you’re booking a summer holiday in America this year, I’d allow an extra hour between international and domestic connections just to be sure.

Have you had a bad experience trying to clear airport security in the US? Will the chance of longer delays put you off travelling there in the near future? If you are planning to go, are you taking any additional precautions? Post your comments below.