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What is Preclearance and Why Are Airlines So Mad About Abu Dhabi Having It?

It’s one of those days that ends in the letter “y” so that means there’s an international spat brewing in the airline industry. This time, the dust-up is over something called preclearance and its recent introduction in Abu Dhabi. It’s actually a pretty simple concept that has the national security guys drooling with excitement, but there’s a reason that airlines in the US are so mad about it. But with national security involved, the airlines never had a chance to win this battle.

Preclearance Precrime

If you’ve ever flown back to the US from Canada, Ireland, or a smattering of Caribbean airports, then you’ve probably experienced preclearance. The idea is that you go through customs and immigration before you get on the airplane instead of after you arrive in the US as usual. That means when you do arrive in the US, it’s like arriving on a domestic flight with no formalities left.

More specifically, it means that you go through check-in procedures as normal in the foreign airport, and then an area is set aside in the airport that’s effectively considered part of the US. There, you go through immigration and customs with US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officials staffing the place. After, you’re spit out into a special gate area where you wait for your flight. Again, it’s like you’re in the US at that point, so when you land, you just walk off the airplane.

In Canada, this makes a ton of sense because there is so much volume coming from those airports, it’s more efficient to send some CBP officials up there and get travelers taken care of before they hit the US. In Ireland, it’s not quite the same, but it’s a nice little perk for those who do use it. I experienced it a couple years ago flying British Airways via Shannon to New York and it was incredible. There is more volume in Dublin, and I used it there last year as well.

Travelers generally love this. On an international departure, you get to the airport pretty early anyway. In most places, you just sit there waiting but in preclearance airports you can be productive. It’s even better if you’re connecting in the US, because you can have a significantly shorter connection time. Take a look at Dublin to Phoenix this summer. United will let you do a 55 minute connection in Newark. That saves so much time (at least on the odd occasion when Newark actually runs on time).

More importantly, think about foreigners coming to the US. Immigration lines can take forever – it’s a trying experience. If you have a properly-staffed operation in Abu Dhabi, people going through there would have a huge benefit. And that’s why US airlines hate this plan.

No US airline flies to Abu Dhabi, so Abu Dhabi-based Etihad would be the only primary beneficiary here. (Yes, American codeshares with Etihad and JetBlue takes passengers in New York, so both of those do have something to gain.) But pretty much everyone agrees that Etihad is a state-supported airline which means it’s not operating on a level playing field. US-based airlines hate this plan because it hurts them competitively. And what they REALLY hate is when US tax dollars are used to fund that advantage. But we’ll talk about that in a minute.

With US airlines hating this so much, you’d think the feds would abandon the plan, but we’re way beyond that. The facility just opened. Why would the US force this? It’s all about so-called national security.

A bigwig at CBP says that preclearance is an “important step in the U.S. government’s effort to prevent terrorism from coming to our borders.” Remember the shoe bomber? Well, if we had caught him before he got on an airplane to the US, then that incident never would have happened. Or something like that. So having a preclearance facility in the heart of the Middle East will help us defeat evil and win the war on terror. (Have I inserted enough silly buzzwords yet?)

Apparently Abu Dhabi is one of the top 10 airports from which terrorists try to come to the US. I’m pretty sure that’ll change now. It won’t make terrorism go away – it’ll just make them fly another airline that doesn’t touch Abu Dhabi. I’m guessing Etihad is not crying about the potential loss of any terrorists buying tickets, but the US is downright giddy about having CBP staff over there.

Isn’t this an expensive proposition? Well sure, but I think we can all guess why Abu Dhabi got the preclearance facility. That’s because the airport is reimbursing CBP for 85 percent of the operating costs. After that, it’s expected that the facility will cost only $500,000 per year for the US to run. That’s a drop in the bucket.

You can clearly see why the national security types were so excited to get this facility open. And when they get excited about something, it makes it nearly impossible for private industry to have a chance to kill it. That’s true even though it all sounds so silly. Yes, the US is spending taxpayer money to make US airlines less competitive in the global industry. How odd.

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