A bipartisan bill to halt a proposed U.S. Customs and Border Protection pre-clearance facility in the United Arab Emirates is aimed at protecting domestic airlines from their foreign competitors.
Reps. Patrick Meehan, Pennsylvania Republican, and Peter A. DeFazio, Oregon Democrat, said that the proposed facility at Abu Dhabi International Airport will allow travelers to “preclear” U.S. customs before arrival.
But because only one airline has regular service from Abu Dhabi — Etihad, the UAE’s state-run airline — the lawmakers are concerned that travelers seeking pre-clearance will re-route through Abu Dhabi, giving Etihad a competitive advantage over domestic carriers.
“It’s ridiculous that U.S. government policy would encourage travelers to use foreign airlines instead of U.S. carriers,” Mr. Meehan said. “While pursuing strong border and customs policies, we should not be hurting American workers by giving an advantage to a state-subsidized foreign airline.”
Mr. DeFazio called the U.S. customs plan “absolutely outrageous,” adding that taxpayer funds “would be better spent reducing wait times at U.S. airports for U.S. passengers.”
A Homeland Security official defended the arrangement, saying that reimbursements included with the pre-clearance agreement will allow U.S. customs to shorten wait times at U.S. ports.
Pre-clearance operations, established by formal agreements between the U.S. and the host country, are akin to Global Entry, a Customs and Border Protection program that allows pre-approved, low-risk travelers to proceed to kiosks upon arrival in the U.S., where they get expedited processing.
But the pre-clearance is tied to outbound airports, allowing travelers to obtain clearance before they board, even when destined for U.S. airports that don’t have customs agents. Currently, pre-clearance exists at most major Canadian airports, some airports in Bermuda, the Bahamas, Aruba and a couple of airports in Ireland.
The Meehan-DeFazio bill requires that Homeland Security must provide Congress with an economic impact and national security assessment before opening a new pre-clearance site. A second bill is expected in coming days that will focus more narrowly on security.
“Congress has discomfort with the department’s pre-clearance deal,” said Rep. Bennie G. Thompson of Mississippi, ranking Democrat on the House Homeland Security Committee, who will be introducing a bill. “There are chronic border security staffing shortages at our nation’s airports, yet the department saw fit, on its own, to agree to deploy its personnel to Abu Dhabi and have its government pick up the tab.”
Peter Boogaard, a Homeland Security spokesman, said the pre-clearance agreement with the UAE will enhance security by allowing U.S. officials to screen passengers before they board incoming flights, “while also streamlining legitimate travel and commerce.”
An Abu Dhabi pre-clearance center could be a boon for Etihad, potentially guaranteeing its long-term partnership with American Airlines and bolstering its ability to expand further into Canada, according to the website Arabian Business.
“Until the Jet Airways purchase — and an extremely important Abu Dhabi-U.S. pre-clearance agreement — Etihad looked like an easy call for American to walk away from. Not anymore,” says a report by CAPA, a market analysis firm with expertise in global aviation.
Etihad also recently announced plans for daily direct flights to Los Angeles starting in June, which would be its fourth U.S. destination.