Abu Dhabi “pre-clearing” its way

Abu Dhabi pre-clearing its way

Despite a successful track record of US customs pre-clearance facilities, a decision by the US Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to open a Customs and Border Protection checkpoint at Abu Dhabi International Airport had sparked controversy. Fearing competitive disadvantage for US airlines, transatlantic market distortion and job losses, the US Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA) as well as US airlines have heavily opposed the new arrangement.

Under pre-clearance arrangements passengers flying to the US can be treated as domestic passengers when they arrive at American customs. This allows them to avoid sometimes longer queues and waiting lines at checkpoints after landing in the US. Although such US pre-clearance facilities already exist in Canada, the Caribbean and Ireland, the new agreement had sparked fierce protest. 

Some of the controversy stems from the fact that Abu Dhabi is served by a single state-owned airline, Etihad, which recently launched nonstop service to Washington in addition to its existing service to New York and Chicago. While no US-based airline currently operates direct services from Abu Dhabi to the US, the pre-clearance facility would only be benefitting this company, states US ALPA. In addition, a special financial scheme, through which 80% of the costs related to clearing passengers for entry into the US at the pre-clearance facility will be reimbursed by the UAE government, is also raising eyebrows among airlines, pilots and airports in the US. 

The pre-clearance facility is a strategic step towards developing Abu Dhabi as a global connecting hub, which offers one stop service to numerous destinations. It would benefit Etihad’s passengers from Asia, Africa and the Middle East as well as passengers from the UAE. Other Gulf States are also not shying away from being “the next port of call for US pre-clearance”. Friendly competitors from Dubai International Airport were quick in backing the pre-clearance facility agreement between Abu Dhabi and the US. While expansion of the pre-clearance facilities would be in principle good news for passengers flying to the US from that specific airport, the questions about improving immigration and customs services at US airports for all travellers as well as on the impact of pre-clearance facilities on competitiveness in the transatlantic aviation market remain relevant. 

A “Draw the Line Here” campaign is gathering online support against the new agreement.