Airfares will go up. Lines at airports will extend "out the door." Foreign travelers will turn to other destinations outside this country. And irritated, price-conscious Americans will stay home or climb into their cars rather than fly to vacation spots like Florida.
That's the bleak picture envisioned by alarmed and disgusted tourism leaders, who predict that the federal budget cuts known as "sequestration" will dampen the summer vacation season and potentially damage Florida's leading industry.
The $85 billion in budget cuts that began at midnight Friday came just in time for the busy travel season around Spring Break, though the full impact on flights and airports won't hit home until April. Most travelers are expected to complete spring trips already planned, but hassles and higher fares could discourage summer trips and bookings for next year.
The sequester already has forced a federal hiring freeze and limits on government travel. Millions of federal workers will have less income starting in April because of furloughs, or unpaid time off. And the defense industry alone expects hundreds of thousands of lost jobs — all of it leaving consumers with less discretionary cash for leisure travel.
"This has the potential to be worse than 10 hurricanes or the dollar being upside down all around the world," said Nicki Grossman, president of the Greater Fort Lauderdale Convention & Visitors Bureau in Florida, who is outraged at Congress and the White House. "This is not only a thumb in the eye of this country, it's saying to any potential traveler — whether they are going from another state or another country — `We're going to bicker, and we don't care what happens.' This economy can't afford that."
She and other tourism promoters say the sequester — which will force furloughs of air-traffic controllers, Customs inspectors and Transportation Security Administration screeners — undermines recent attempts to ease the visa process for foreign visitors and to market the United States as a hospitable, hassle-free place to visit.
"If they can't get here because the plane can't land, or they can't go through Customs within two hours because there are no Customs officials working, guess who is not coming to the United States?" Grossman said.
The money pinch and complaints of extravagant spending by some agencies already have discouraged government-sponsored gatherings, especially at places known for pleasure travel — a blow to destinations like Orlando and South Florida. Just last week, the General Services Administration canceled its 2013 Expo training and vendor conference, which had been scheduled for May 14-16 in Orlando, "due to budget constraints."
"U.S. agencies are canceling conferences right and left," Grossman said. "The (Pentagon) has a new requirement to take their conferences somewhere where there's a military base, and they have to cut down on attendees. Everything tourism communities are doing (to attract visitors) is being undone by the United States government."
Tourism is a fragile industry in the sense that public perceptions — whether accurate or not — of oil-soaked beaches, or hurricane-damaged theme parks, or canceled flights and long waits at airports can ruin a season for thousands of small businesses. That's why widely publicized warnings about the sequester, even if they turn out to be exaggerated, can make a difference.
"I think the customer will bite the bullet and take the punishment in the short term," said Abraham Pizam, director of the Institute for Tourism Studies at the University of Central Florida. "The lines will be longer, flights will be fewer, but in the final analysis, not a very significant impact.
"But in the long or medium range," he said, "people will get the message that they better sit home because of the inconvenience of travel."
He added that furloughs, and sequestration-related layoffs, will reduce discretionary income, slow business activity and dampen growth in the economy. "The result is that destinations that depend on travel, like Orlando, will see a significant decline in the number of tourists coming and dollars earned," Pizam predicted.
Federal aviation officials plan to begin furloughing air-traffic controllers next month, leaving airport control towers with less staff to safely handle landings and takeoffs. They expect far fewer flights, more cancellations and 90-minute delays.
Construction at local airports plus the furloughs likely will reduce flight arrivals at Fort Lauderdale/Hollywood International Airport next month from 26 per hour to 18, according to projections by the National Air Traffic Controllers Association. At Miami International Airport, arrivals are projected to drop from 72 to 32.
At the same time, furloughs of TSA personnel are expected to extend lines at security stations. The impact may not be as severe through the spring if administrative personnel are furloughed first.
"We're short-handed as it is, and Spring Break is coming up. The lines will be out the door," said Donald Thomas, a local union president for TSA workers at Orlando International Airport. "If the furloughs stay in the administration area, it won't be as bad. If it hits the screeners, we'll be in trouble."
Fewer flights usually mean higher fares, and that's what many in the travel industry expect. George Hobica, founder of Airfarewatchdog, which tracks airfares, said he expects increases of as much as 10 percent on many routes. He said airlines will reduce the number of lower-priced seats — and that many consumers who aren't compelled to travel won't bother.
"Most leisure travelers are fare-conscious. It's all they care about," Hobica said. "For people who already are planning summer vacations, even rumors of this happening are going to put a damper on buying airfares. More people are going to be driving to Florida this year, despite higher gas prices."
By William E. Gibson - Orlando Sentinel (MCT)
©2013 The Orlando Sentinel (Orlando, Fla.)
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