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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49 comments on “What is Preclearance and Why Are Airlines So Mad About Abu Dhabi Having It?

  1. Why did the Govt agree to spend even $500,000 on this ? Does budget control not exist when it comes to national security ?

    Who is paying for the facility in Ireland ? How much would it cost for people coming from Dublin / Shannon to go through immigration when they land on US soil compared to on Irish soil ?

    Canada (or Mexico) makes a lot of sense, as do airports which have a large number of US bound flights but elsewhere it’s likely a waste of Govt cash that distorts the air travel market in favour of certain cities.

    1. The US has to pay the cost of the Customs agents at the US airports where all these Etihad flights arrive. Since Etihad only flies into major international airports which have Customs stations anyway, the cost will certainly be less per flight than it would be in Abu Dhabi. But I would guess that the cost to process passengers in the US is more than 15% of the cost to open this station in Abu Dhabi. So I suspect that this $500,000/yr the US is spending in Abu Dhabi is actually less than they spend to process Etihad passengers back in the States.

      And $500,000/yr really is nothing. That’s $1400/day for 5 Etihad destinations. Guessing one flight per day to each destination, that’s $280 per flight, which is probably the US Federal taxes on four or five passengers.

  2. I am not sure I am entirely on board with this. It does seem to save the tax payers money, as AUH picks up 85% of the tab (as you say). But what about other countries, with tons of traffic to the US, i.e. UK, DE, FR etc. Why wouldn’t they be on a short list to get pre-clearance? And is Ireland, Canada, Mexico or other countries picking up 85% of the tab as well? (Somehow I don’t think so)

    I do think building a facility where only one airline benefits reeks of favoritism on some level.

    1. I think the reason that alot of countries don’t host U.S. preclearance facilities is that they don’t want it or that they can’t come to an agreeable arrangement with the U.S. I asked a CBPP officer once why Mexico doesn’t have preclearance and he said something to the effect that Mexico and the U.S. haven’t reached an agreement on the terms.

      If Mexico had preclearance at, say, CUN, there would be service to every Midwest city with a metropolitan population of 400,000 or over.

  3. Now all the terrorists have to drive 1 hour north and fly out of Dubai International Airport. They are going to be so mad… that airport is so busy and has so many more airlines to choose from. Should they fly Delta, United, decisions decisions.

    P.S. Funniest article ever!

  4. I don’t see the uproar over the budget on this with the local regime picking up 85% of the tab. 500k is probably about what they invest in four officers with pay and benefits each year. I would bet with the reduction of workload stateside at least that much would be saved. Remember the more places that CBP does preclearance, the shorter the lines get at JFK, ATL, SFO, LAX and other busy international gateways.

    1. In addition to shorter lines, pre-clearance avoids having to deal with passengers who are denied entry upon arrival. Since those passengers must be in custody until they can be placed on return flights, there are also staffing costs associated with this problem.

    2. Its actually a LOT more than 4. You also have a few people poking around the gate and ramp area. This will reduce workload at current CBP stations in the US, which means a few hundred LESS people in line = faster entry for those who aren’t in Global Entry or faster for non-USC’s.

      Regarding some of the costs, don’t forget you pay an APHIS fee of almost $18 each way when flying international that goes straight into CBP’s pocket.

  5. While there are multitude of factors that are causing US airlines to go up in arms over this issue, one of the ones that ultimately causes them to blow up is the rampant understaffing at CBP within US gateways. Until the CBP staffs LAX, MIA, JFK, ORD, etc. with adequate staffing to ensure that the average passenger can clear in ~20-30 minutes, they should not spend any resources on growing international pre-clearance in far-flung places like AUH. Why not start with HKG, LHR, NRT, CDG or AMS as those would make a bigger impact on the lines in US gateways? Currently it doesn’t seem that the airlines have a path in the US to shortening the CBP-staffed lines in US gateways other than buying the kiosks for automated pre-clearance and paying for their heavy travelers to get Global Entry. We need a more comprehensive solution to CBP entry into the US other than spot solutions like Canada, Mexico and Carribbean pre-clearance along with now AUH – one that measurably improves US gateway CBP experience for inbound passengers from wherever they originate.

    See http://www.ustravel.org/sites/default/files/page/2009/07/Customs_openletter-U.S.Travel.pdf – this problem has been going on for years and AUH is perhaps a part of the solution (admittedly a drop on the ocean), but far from comprehensive.

  6. Now all the terrorists have to drive 1 hour north and fly out of Dubai International Airport. They are going to be so mad… that airport is so busy and has so many more airlines to choose from. Should they fly Delta, United, decisions decisions.

  7. As someone who had 20+ flights into Canada last year I’m not on board with the preclearance bandwagon. A foreigner traveling to the US with connections may love this but as a US citizen who is trying to get home it’s agonizing. The lines for passport control are unpredictable at best and for an often under 2 hour flight across the border getting to the airport 3 hours early is a little asinine.

    YUL and YYZ in particular are terrible and they don’t let you jump the line for passport control. If you miss your flight there isn’t exactly a ton of frequency to the US, especially past 6-7pm. Additionally, you are in a secure “US” part of the airport. You can’t walk over to a domestic flight going from YYZ to YYC and get back to the US from that Canadian airport, you’re stuck with whatever is available in that pre-clearance area. Sure, you could go outside security and re-enter on the other side but it’s just more hassle.

    I’ve missed flights being stuck in long CBP lines on both sides of the border. When it happened in the US I was able to work with the airline and still get home that night with a connection through ATL. When it happened at YYZ I was stuck spending the night in a terrible hotel near Toronto Pearson. Meanwhile if I had only been able to get down to BOS, JFK, DTW, whatever, I would’ve had a myriad of options to get home that same day.

    1. Traveling that many times into Canada makes me wonder if you’ve applied for NEXUS or Global Entry. I was in YOW last year and it was the longest wait for CBP for the flight back to the US that I’ve had in a while. LAX (Tom Bradley Terminal), ATL, and MSP were all pretty quick going through the US citizen line, but YOW has only one line, not separate lines for citizens and visitors. My parents were with me and have Global Entry, so they were able to breeze right through.

  8. Pre-clearance is a wonderful thing for foreigners travelling to the US. You’ll probably never see it in the UK, as we’re notoriously shitty to anyone foreign coming to visit, so why would the US choose to reward us for our shirtiness??

    Quite frankly, coming into IAD at the moment, after an 8h transatlantic, to be ‘greeted’ by 2 CBP officers dealing with 3 x wide-bodies from the UK, China and Africa, is enough to make you top yourself. Have to say EWR was a breeze the other week, though…..

  9. I’m sure it must be something that hasn’t make it to the public yet. The USA is getting something else out of it besides just a customs location in a country where only one (forgein) airline will be using it. It must be something military/CIA related between the two governments.

    1. David SF – I think you’re completely right. This isn’t about commercial aviation. It has to be an intelligence effort of some sort. Friends helping friends, or something like that, but under the cover of commercial aviation. So all of these objections about cost or unfairness or anything are effectively ignored.

  10. I hated the DUB pre-clearance process. Once you’re through, you’re stuck in a cramped concourse with only one food option while you wait several hours for your flight, and that option was horrible. Anyone flying out of DUB to the US needs to make sure to eat before going through security.

  11. “But pretty much everyone agrees that Etihad is a state-supported airline which means it’s not operating on a level playing field.”

    For any US based airline to claim they are not state-supported through tax incentives, bi-lateral aviation agreements, bankruptcy protection, pension write-offs, direct subsidies to fly to certain airports, and the U.S. Government paying for aircraft inspectors to travel to Central America to sign off on outsourced maintenance is hypocrisy at its worst.

    The problem isn’t that Abu Dhabi is getting pre-clearance it’s that every other major airport serving the U.S. doesn’t already have it. Given the number of Americans traveling to/from the Middle East via Abu Dhabi it makes perfect sense.

    1. You clearly have zero understanding of the US airline industry… and ‘the number of American’s traveling to/from the middle east via AUH? You should really check your figures before you start posting nonsense.

    2. Southeasterner – Let’s look at teach of those.

      *tax incentives – What tax incentives do US airlines have that are somehow superior to what gulf carriers get? I mean, gulf carriers have no tax to pay. Hard to beat that.

      *bilateral aviation agreements – The US has a policy of always pursuing open skies. Other than the introduction of cabotage, I don’t see how US policy has somehow supported its airlines. Now if we’re talking Canada, that’s a different story. There’s a reason that Emirates can’t fly much to Canada – protectionism.

      *bankruptcy protection – Absolutely true that this has benefited airlines and all companies in the US. But without it, the airlines would just be shut down and new entities would arise to replace them. I don’t think it really makes a difference when it comes to international competition.

      *pension write-offs – Yep, true. Though if pension rules weren’t as screwy as they are, then maybe they wouldn’t have had to write them all off.

      *direct subsidies – What subsidies to US airlines get to fly to “certain airports” that other carriers are not able to take advantage of?

      *US government paying for inspectors to sign off on outsourced maintenance – Stretching it to suggest this is some sort of crazy governmental support.

  12. Well maybe if CBP actually staffed immigration properly than this wouldn’t be an issue.

    I just did immigration at Delhi a few weeks back at 11:30pm (all the widebodies from Europe and Asia come then), and they had nearly 25 counters open. Immigration took just 10 minutes. So it’s possible in the US too to fix the problem.

    The larger issue is that TSA/CBP are not really respected positions in the US whereas in India people consider you as doing something relatively important. That’s why TSA resorts to pizza box ads to recruit cause the jobs don’t pay that well.

    1. TSA and CBP are two very different agencies. CBP officers are federal law enforcement (1895 job series), get paid fairly competitively, and have some enhanced retirement benefits in line with a law enforcement position. TSA is a non-law enforcement position (no badge, just that fake shield, and no gun, no detention/arrest authority) and is paid rather poorly.

      I’d say CBP officers are as respected as any other branch of federal law enforcement. My experience is mostly with 1811s (I’m not LE myself, nor a federal employee any longer) and the mutual respect is definitely there.

  13. Any idea why London and Paris don’t have it? There must be a lot more flights from London/Paris to the US than any of the Caribbean locations. Would the terminal set-up be the main issue?

    1. Jon (and others with the same question) – I imagine there are several reasons why other, bigger airports don’t have preclearance, but think about space constraints as a big issue. In London, you have very little space to do anything. To make this work, you not only need to dedicate space for the screening process, but you also need to block off an area of the terminal and make all US-bound flights operate there. I have no idea how that could possibly happen in London or Paris.

      Also, I’m assuming that the price would have to be paid by the country in which this would be set up. And those countries aren’t going to spend for that kind of thing.

      1. You’d pretty much have to dedicate an entire terminal at LHR or CDG to US flights which would be fine for originating or terminating passengers but an even worse nightmare than it already is for connections.

    2. I would have to say because European nations have a stronger sense of sovereignty. Having US CBP officers on your soil is conceding some of your sovereignty to the US. it only makes sense for countries who have already surrendered a lot of their sovereignty to the US like Canada the 51st state or islands in the Caribbean which are only separate from US to keep their tax haven status.

      Though I am surprised that the UK does not have one given the “Special Relationship” cough cough “Reverse colonization” between US and UK.

      1. Have a look at a law called FATCA – most countries in the world have now agreed to be colonies of the US.

  14. My only issue when we returned from YYZ to SFO was that we had no idea about this process and did not plan any additional time for it. We got to the gate with barely enough time to make the flight, but the flight had been delayed so it wasn’t a problem. I just still didn’t like not being told about this so we could allow for the additional time needed. Still, I have been in long lines in the US airports, so I would rather spend the time before departure so we can just go home after the international flight.

    1. Yo, Don…

      You didn’t know? Pre-clearance out of YYZ has been the norm for many years! Old AA timetables from the ’60s even had a “z” remark next to the “leave Toronto” column. The “z” translation being that you needed to be at the airport x-number of minutes early for customs.

      The “z” symbol was almost as famous as the “%” symbol (plane change) in TW timetables.

  15. Two things. First If you notice the next time you go through US customs the officers are armed. Most countries have issues with armed US government officials on their soil.

    The “official” who used the shoe bomber as a reason should be relieved as that was an issue of security at the airport which he boarded. If the bomber transferred there should have been a transit screening of all flights to the US like they do at FRA.

    1. Which is why Customs officials on foreign soil (at least in Canada) aren’t armed. Local police provides security for them. I don’t see why Customs officers would need to be armed, particularly on foreign soil. It’s not like a terrorist can shoot a border guard in Abu Dhabi and sneak onto a plane to the US; the plane wouldn’t take off. There is a (very vaguely) plausible scenario at a US airport or land border crossing in which someone shoots a border guard and vanishes into the country, which is perhaps a justification for arming border guards on US soil.

    2. Ck6 – It wasn’t a direct correlation re: the shoe bomber. The quote was this:

      The attempted terrorist attack on American Airlines Flight 63 from Paris to Miami on December 22, 2001, and on Northwest Airlines Flight 253 from Amsterdam to Detroit on December 25, 2009, demonstrate that terrorists seek to avoid U.S. screening and targeting efforts by carrying out attacks on U.S.-bound aircraft before arrival in the United States.

  16. I’ve only ever done precleance for the US in the Vancouver train station (Amtrak down to Seattle uses it and there currently working on it for Montreal) on trains it makes total sense. The train from Montreal spends two hours at the border as Border Protection goes through the train now.

    I believe though (and remember reading) that the officers don’t carry whepons?

  17. I’ve done preclearance in YYZ, YWG, YVR, and DUB. Never had an issue, in YWG I arrived very late due to an issue with mistaken departure time and was rushed through no problem to make a flight I checked in for 25 minutes before departure.

    the issues usually are with the limited things in the restricted gate area after clearance.

  18. It’s bigger then Abu Dhabi. The Omnibus Bill that passed last week also allows additional facilities in Dubai, where Emirates is based. You remember Emirates, right? They ordered an additional 150 B 777X and 50 A380 aircraft last November, the largest aircraft order in history. What does a nation of 4.5 million people need with that many wide body aircraft, unless they plan to flood the market with cheap fares and cripple the US airline industry.

    They will pump up their fleets, they will dump fare prices on international routes, they will turn our laws and our own taxes against American workers.

    The 9/11 hijackers came to the US out of Hamburg. Why don’t we have pre clearance there?

    The government sponsored airlines of the Persian Gulf states see this as a competitive advantage, and a crucial step in their plans to dominate the international travel market. they pay no taxes, face no regulatory burden, and don’t have to deal with pesky unions (all of their employees are foreigners). They are not legitimate businesses, they are coddles of their respective dictatorships.

    I’m wondering why the Cranky Flier is so whimsical about this. He obviously understands the reasons why airline employees might take umbrage to this betrayal from the White House, and he certainly knows that the airline industry composes about six percent of US GDP. And he even seems to know that putting just one airport in the Middle East under a magnifying glass will simply divert the hordes of terrorists to other airports. It’s whack-a-mole, not intelligence-driven security.

    Widen the focus. In twenty years, if this goes on, you will have to connect to your Paris flight through Dubai. Level the playing field, and force these state-sponsored airlines to compete on fair terms, without handouts from our elected government.

  19. I think Dubai might be next. When I had my Global Entry interview in Charlotte in December, the young lady who processed me was very interested in the fact that I work in the Middle East. She mentioned that there were available TSA positions in Dubai; however, she was concerned about how she would be perceived in that environment as a female in a position of authority over males (inside the TSA bubble), and did not want to work in an uncomfortable situation.

  20. I live in Dubai. American Airlines should worry about improving their service quality instead of a minor issue like this. Etihad provides a vastly superior level of service for both economy and biz/first. The US airlines deserve bankruptcy because their quality is so poor.

    Recently, I flew biz from DUB to CLT with US Air after flying DXB to DUB with Emirates. The flight times are almost the same and the flight cost for each flight was also almost the same, US Air was actually a little more expensive. Emirates was typical international business class with lie flat seats, large VOD library, restaurant quality food, a down pillow and duvet, etc. US Air was old school domestic first class seats with barely any recline, a thin blanket, a terrible pillow, awful meal, and no entertainment. It was an absolute joke compared to the Emirates flight. I don’t see why anyone with a choice would ever choose a US airline for international travel.

  21. A collegue of mine underwent the pre-clearance at Abu Dhabi last week. He said only 30 % of the booths were manned and the whole process took even more time than the typical 1.5 hours at JFK !
    Flight departure was delayed by 1 hour because of it.
    Will they go back to the pre-preclearance is this continues?

  22. I fly from Dublin to Newark on a fairly regular basis and love pre clearance. I am not sure if this has been covered in the comments or not but there has to be a saving based on the return flights for people who are denied access upon arrival.
    There is one odd wrinkle in Dublin whereby you can purchase more duty free product after passing through pre clearance.

  23. HI
    I am doing pre-clearance at Shannon for Canada bound flight with stop in Chicago.Once landed on US soil is this concidered a domestic flight? As I am transferring will I need to check in and do customs/security in normal way for Canada at Chicago airport?.Return journey from Edmonton to UK.
    Cheap flight but quite confusing any pointers please

  24. I am traveling to New York JFK from Karachi through Etihad Airways. There is a layover of 3 hours at Abu Dhabi. Is this time enough for the pre-clearance? One interesting thing i just found out from Etihad call centre is that passengers transiting from KHI-NY via Abu Dhabi don’t need to go through the pre-clearance (no matter any flight no.) and their immigration will be done at New York. Is this information correct as i read on few above posts that passengers transiting needs to go through pre-clearance. Please advise.

    1. Hussain – I would think a 3 hour layover would be fine, but I haven’t heard anything about current processing times. I would be very surprised if you didn’t go through pre-clearance coming from Pakistan. One of the main reasons for opening this facility is the ability to pre-screen passengers before they arrive to the US. The government seems particularly interested to do that in several countries in the Middle East that are considered to be higher risk from potential terrorists, and Pakistan is mentioned by name as one of those countries. So I would think they would want to make sure you went through pre-clearance.

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