Impact Of Sequester Cuts On Travel: Houston Is The Third World Airport Not Managua

As Americans, we’ve been bred to believe that the way we do things should be a model for the rest of the world. But after spending a good chunk of my Friday, day one of the sequester federal spending cuts, at George Bush Intercontinental Airport (IAH) in Houston, I have to admit that Nicaragua, the second poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, felt like a better run airport than that of our fourth largest city.

Comparing Augusto Sandino International Airport in Managua to George Bush is a bit of an apples to oranges comparison, because Managua is a much sleepier place, but here is what I observed. We arrived at the airport in Managua at 11 a.m. and despite the fact that it was relatively busy, we made it through immigration, customs and baggage screening and to our gate by 11:30.

Managua has free Wi-Fi that is fast and works flawlessly. Free as in no strings attached. You don’t even have to register, agree to any terms of use or sign up for anything. But even better than that, there is free espresso spiked with rum at the Flor de Caña booth. And I’m not talking about a tiny sample either. They made me a double shot of espresso with a healthy shot of their delicious rum, aged in oak barrels for 12 years. Awesome.Managua also had a shop with counterfeit Major League Baseball wallets for just under a dollar (but sadly they had just one team: the Yankees).

We arrived in Houston with a three-hour layover and needed almost every minute of it to get to our connecting flight to Chicago, which left from Gate C39, which felt like it was about 18 miles from where we arrived. There was no free Wi-Fi (though it may be coming soon), no free espresso and no free rum. And the officially licensed Astros, Longhorns and Rockets items were a lot more than a buck. Worst of all, though, was the line to get through immigration.

Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said on Monday that the spending cuts have caused lines at some airports to spike by 150 to 200 percent and warned that travelers should budget extra time. We experienced that reality waiting to make it through immigration in Houston. I have never seen a line so long in my life and only about half of the dozens of lines were open, apparently because DHS has had to crack down on overtime. According to CBS News, John F. Kennedy International Airport (JFK) had approximately 56 flights with wait times in excess of two hours and 14 flights over three hours; Miami International Airport (MIA) reported 51 flights over two hours and four flights approached/exceeded three hours.

Customs and Border Protection (CBP) released a statement which stated that due to sequestration, “CBP reduced overtime this weekend at Ports of Entry around the country… Lanes that would have previously been open due to overtime staffing were closed, further exacerbating wait times at airports with typically longer international arrival processes.”

We waited in line for a little more than 90 minutes, just to go through immigration and when we boarded our flight it was half-empty. But the crew announced that it was actually going to be a full flight and we’d have to wait for others who were making international connections and were hung up in the long lines. We took off an hour late and some people on our flight complained that they waited in line for three hours (I assume they were exaggerating but perhaps only a bit).

A spokesperson for IAH stated that the airport didn’t experience the kind of unusual delays that other airports experienced over the weekend but with the start of the Spring Break season this week, they expect that lines could be longer than usual in the next two weeks. I’m not sure if that means that very long lines are the norm in Houston and I don’t know how long the impact of the sequester cuts will last, but I can say that on day one of the new reality, Houston was the airport that felt like the third world, not Managua.

[Photo credits: Dave Seminara]