By Paul Beaty, Associated Press
Bart Jansen, USA TODAY
WASHINGTON -- The Transportation Security Administration announced Friday it would adopt a hiring freeze and reduce overtime spending in response to federal spending cuts -- a move it said could double wait times at checkpoints at the busiest airports.
Travelers won't notice longer waits immediately, the agency said. But because of turnover, it said, it expects slots for 1,000 security officers to be vacant by Memorial Day and 2,600 vacancies by the end of September.
"With TSA staffing levels decreasing over time, we expect that during busy travel periods wait times exceeding 30 to 40 minutes could double at nearly all of the largest airports," the agency said in a statement.
"In addition," it said, "passengers who schedule their travel outside of peak flight schedules and plan to arrive close to their scheduled flight time may see their wait times now reach 30 minutes or more."
The announcement is one of the few concrete examples of how $85 billion in across-the-board spending cuts that would affect travelers would be implements. The cuts were to take effect today, though the brunt of them won't begin being seen in many instances until next month.
President Obama met with congressional leaders Friday to discuss the cuts. But officials haven't found a way to prevent them. Obama has pushed for closing tax loopholes in combination with spending cuts, while Republicans have opposed raising taxes.
Other agencies anticipate furloughing workers to cut roughly 10% of their funding by the end of September and Democratic lawmakers expect furloughs at TSA. But today's announcement doesn't mention furloughs.
TSA Administrator John Pistole told a House panel Wednesday that the agency stopped training new air marshals - armed, undercover officers who fly on planes to thwart terrorists - in January. The last class had been trained in September 2011.
"The longer it goes, the greater potential impact it has for us," Pistole told lawmakers. "So we're doing the other things before furloughing."
Pistole warned that checkpoint delays would get worse during busier travel times, such as for spring break and for summer holidays, with less ability to pay overtime to match a surge in flights.
"As the passenger traffic builds for spring and summer, that's where we'll see the greatest potential impact," Pistole said.