So many international passengers missed their connecting flights at Miami International Airport last weekend that about 200 of them had to bed down at the airport’s auditorium, for one night turned into a makeshift hotel.
Blame federal budget cuts known as the sequester, which have limited overtime pay for U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers.
The result: fewer officers at passport checkpoints, leading to waits more than four hours long last Saturday, the worst day of delays since the sequester began March 1. MIA is the nation’s busiest airport for international flights.
“I’d use the word brutal,” Airport Director José Abreu said of the delays.
The county-owned airport had already been experiencing a shortage of customs officers before the beginning of the sequester, which cut 2 percent of the $3.8 trillion federal budget. Visiting MIA last month, U.S. Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano warned passenger lines could get even longer. They did.
“Customs officers who would normally come in a little earlier or stay a little later with overtime pay — that’s gone now,” said Greg Chin, an airport spokesman.
A survey of 1,200 overseas travelers released Tuesday by the Consensus Research Group for the U.S. Travel Association found that 43 percent of respondents would recommend avoiding traveling through the U.S. because of the customs process. That negative word of mouth could cost the economy billions of dollars and hundreds of thousands of jobs, the travel association estimated.
MIA has issued an advisory on its website warning about longer-than-usual wait times for passengers arriving from international destinations. In the past few weeks, staffers have handed out some 15,000 water bottles to travelers waiting in line or forced to spend the night at the airport, Chin said.
Delays have been particularly heavy from Fridays to Mondays, when traffic at the airport increases by about 10,000 passengers — in part because that’s when many cruises depart and arrive, Chin said. Add Spring Break, the Ultra Music Festival and the Sony Open tennis tournament, and matters only get worse.
“This is probably one of the worst times for this to happen,” Chin said.