There’s been a lot of talk lately about the superiority of the experience on Middle East carriers. While that’s more likely to be true (but not always) when it comes to the onboard product, what about the operation? If you’re flying Etihad to the US, it’s not good. Your chances of departing on time are pretty slim.
This story actually has nothing to do with the fight between the US and Middle East carriers over subsidies. It first came on my radar long before that was even public. The idea of Etihad having operational issues first caught my eye soon after Abu Dhabi opened a pre-clearance facility for US customs and immigration.
Abu Dhabi decided to pay a ton of money to build a pre-clearance facility like what you see in Ireland, Canada, and much of the Caribbean. It is staffed by US customs and immigration agents so that you actually clear into the US before your flight even departs. That means once you arrive in the US, you’ll be treated just like a domestic passenger. This should mean shorter connections to domestic flights… and a competitive advantage for Abu Dhabi’s hub carrier, Etihad.
It wasn’t long after the facility opened that reports of major processing problems were leading to flight delays. Take a look at this report from One Mile at a Time, for example. It sounds like a complete mess, but I decided to wait awhile to see if the kinks got worked out.
The facility opened at the beginning of 2014, so by now, it should all be working right. I went into masFlight’s database and pulled on time performance from January 1 of this year through May 11 for Etihad flights departing Abu Dhabi and arriving in the US. (No other airline uses the pre-clearance facility there.) What did I find?
The data wasn’t perfect. Of 837 tracked flights headed to LA, San Francisco, Dallas, Chicago, New York, and Washington, only 756 showed actual departure times. The rest were blank. Only 450 of those showed arrival times in the US, which seemed even more odd. But I checked with masFlight and they said the data that they had was correct. They just didn’t get data every day. So I focused on the departure times since there was much more data to be had.
As you can see, only 1 percent of flights departed on or before the schedule departure time. Even if you give a 15 minute buffer, it’s still just 6 percent. More than a quarter of flights were delayed over an hour. That’s pretty awful.
If there’s any good news here it’s that Etihad schedules enough ground time in the US to at least get a better result on departures back to Abu Dhabi. But it’s still not great. Only 13 percent of flights from the US are delayed over an hour. But nearly half of the flights from the US are delayed at least 15 minutes.
This isn’t good, so I went to Etihad to see what the airline had to say. After all, CEO James Hogan said in March that despite some early kinks, “today it works perfectly.” Does that mean Etihad’s operation is just bad on its own and it has nothing to do with pre-clearance? Was the airline working on this? Unfortunately, my usually-responsive PR contact at Etihad did not get me a comment on this issue.
Hopefully Etihad realizes that this is an issue now and is doing something to fix it, but we haven’t seen any public admission suggesting that’s the case. Keep that in mind when you’re booking a connection in the US after coming in from Abu Dhabi. You might want some extra buffer.
Update: While I was on vacation, Etihad sent me a statement on the airline’s on time performance. Here it is:
“We recognize that flights to the U.S. via the Abu Dhabi U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) Pre-Clearance facility are often delayed, however, ironically they are a sign of the success of the facility and demonstrate that our guests see the opportunity of pre-clearance upon departure as a positive — in preference to pre-clearing upon arrival in the U.S. The facility was opened in January, 2014 and at the time only served two flights a day to the U.S. Today, as of May 2015, the facility now handles over 45 flights a week, over two shifts, with an increasing numbers of guests. Furthermore, the capability of the facility is constantly increasing with the recent addition of Automated Passport Control kiosks, Global Entry kiosks, and additional U.S. CBP staffing resources. Last month, Etihad opened a premium lounge on the “U.S. side” of the facility. This is an undeniable success in an incredibly short space of time and confirmation of the popularity of the pre-clearance process.
A recent drop in departure performance was, in part, due to a schedule change which saw the re-timing of many of our flights to the U.S. to meet the needs of our guests. Schedule changes often bring about a drop in performance as procedures and resources adapt to the new timings. As stated in a recent article by CBP, almost 80% of all guests passing through the facility are in transit from many other parts of the world, initially contributing to the drop in performance as new connectivity profiles associated with the schedule changes become familiar.
Despite some delays, the vast majority of our guests are making their onward domestic connections in the U.S. It is also important to understand that the primary purpose of the facility is to assure the immigration process for entry into the U.S. — and doing that overseas, rather than on the U.S. border, is a significant advantage for both the guest and U.S. CBP.
Nevertheless, Etihad continues to work with the U.S. and U.A.E. authorities who operate the facility to improve the departure performance and we are confident that this is achievable.”