Ms Napolitano said today that major airports were seeing lines “150 to 200 per cent as long as we would normally expect” as result of the federal spending cuts that went into force on Friday.
“We’re already seeing the effects at some of the ports of entry, the big airports, for example. Some of them had very long lines this weekend,” she told a breakfast event organised by Politico.
When pressed for specifics she cited Chicago’s O’Hare, Atlanta’s Hartfield-Jackson and Los Angeles International Airport (LAX), adding: “I don’t mean to scare, I mean to inform.”
However, when contacted by The Daily Telegraph, spokespeople for both O’Hare and LAX, as well as representatives from the travel industry, denied that airports had been hit by delays.
“We haven’t had any slowdowns at all,” said Marshall Lowe, a spokesman for LAX. Mr Lowe said that he had been on duty over the weekend and received no reports of unusual security delays.
DeAllous Smith, a spokesman for Hartfield-Jackson, said: “There have been no abnormally long lines at the security checkpoint nor unusual aircraft delays at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport as a result of sequestration.”
Their comments were echoed by Karen Pride, the director of media relations at Chicago Department of Aviation, who described operations at O’Hare as “normal” with “no unusual delays or cancellations”.
When asked specifically about the cabinet secretary’s claims, Ms Pride said: “I’m not aware of that. I’ve had no reports of that.”
The Obama administration has been repeatedly accused of exaggerating the impact of the $85 billion in cuts as it seeks to pressure Republicans in Congress into replacing them with a mixture of spending reductions and tax rises.
Arne Duncan, the secretary of education, was widely criticised last month for saying that teachers were already being laid off because of the cuts, a claim without evidence. The Washington Post‘s Fact Checker blog awarded the claim four Pinocchios - its highest rating for falsehood.
The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) did not immediately return a request for comment on Ms Napolitano’s claim.
Luis Casanova, a regional spokesman for the Transport Security Administration (TSA), said “we’ve been asked not to comment on the subject [of sequestration]” and referred calls to DHS.
A statement released Friday by the TSA said travelers “will likely not see immediate impacts at airport security checkpoints” but that delays would increase over time.
Jean Medina, a spokeswoman for Airlines for America, the airline industry’s trade group, also contradicted Ms Napolitano’s claim. “We’re not seeing any impact at the moment,” Ms Medina said. “Our biggest problem this week is going to be weather rather than the sequester.”
Ms Medina said she would not “speculate” on Ms Napolitano’s remarks but said: “I can only tell you what we’ve heard from our members, which is they have not seen any abnormal delays.”
Dorian Paul of Corniche Travel, a Los Angeles-based travel company, said he had received no reports of security delays at LAX or across the country.
“I haven’t heard of anything like that at all,” Mr Paul said. “We’re on a mailing list for LAX that tells us whether there are any security delays and we have meet-and-greet people at the airport who tell us if there are any delays and at the moment we haven’t heard anything.”