In theory, US customs and immigration preclearance is one of those things that sounds great for everyone involved. So when the feds announced a desire to add 10 more preclearance facilities to the 15 that exist today, everyone should be jumping up and down with joy, right? For some, that’s true. But there are others who won’t like this.
The plan now is to “enter into negotiations” with ten foreign airports to build preclearance facilities. Those are Brussels, Punta Cana, Tokyo/Narita, Amsterdam, Oslo, Madrid, Stockholm, Istanbul, London/Heathrow, and Manchester (UK). This will be in addition to the facilities that exist in most major Canadian and Irish cities along with many Caribbean destinations. The most recent member of the club is Abu Dhabi, and that has been having some real operational issues.
These facilities need to be good-sized rooms where people can clear US customs and immigration. Then there have to be sterile gate areas that don’t allow exit back into the country. After all, you might be on the ground in Dublin, but once you go through US customs and immigration, you’re officially in the US. The upside to this is that you get to arrive just like a domestic passenger in the US and can just walk into the gate area like someone off a domestic arrival. But the downside is you have to get to your departure airport much earlier in order to clear customs and immigration in advance.
Thinking about what’s involved, it’s really hard to imagine how a place like Heathrow could even fathom having a facility like this. There are flights to the US departing from four separate terminals today, and it’s not like there’s a ton of space to just go and build a bunch of preclearance facilities there. But the US certainly wants to try.
From a government perspective, this is great. It’s far more preferable to catch a bad guy before he arrives on US soil. Just turn him away at the door and then you can wash your hands clean. If he’s physically in the US already, it’s a more complex problem. It also gives homeland security a reason to put more people in strategic locations around the world. Lots of intelligence-gathering opportunities out there….
For travelers, the basic idea of preclearance sounds great, but it’s better for some than others. For foreigners traveling to the US, for example, in theory there should be shorter lines at the preclearance facility than in US airports. But you hear these stories about Abu Dhabi delays and maybe that’s not true.
For US nationals, especially those with Global Entry, there are almost no lines anyway. If your trip ends at the first point of entry in the US, then there isn’t much benefit to be had. But if you are connecting, then it gets more interesting. Sure you’d have to get to the preclearance airport a bit earlier, but you’ll also have shorter connections once in the US. And in poorly-designed places like Chicago/O’Hare, the benefit is even greater.
A textbook example of how great preclearance can be involves O’Hare. Let’s say you’re flying from London to Oklahoma City on American via Chicago. You’ll have to land at Terminal 5, clear immigration, claim your bags, clear customs, re-check your bags, go to Terminal 3, reclear security, and then find your gate. Fun, right?
But if you’re going from Dublin to Oklahoma City via Chicago, preclearance is in effect. You’ll have to arrive earlier in Dublin because you’ll go through US customs and immigration there. But once you’re through, then it’s smooth-sailing. Your flight will land right into Terminal 3 at O’Hare and you walk off as if you’re on a domestic flight. Then you can walk to the next gate for your connection.
That’s a great scenario. But where it gets more challenging is when connections from beyond the preclearance facility come into play. For example, think about Amsterdam.
KLM’s big hub bank for flights to the US is in the early morning. Look at someone going from Lisbon to LA. This summer, the flight leaves from Lisbon at 5a and arrives Amsterdam at 9a. The flight to LA leaves at 950a and then arrives 1145a. That 50 minute connection is doable today, but it won’t be doable if there’s a preclearance facility. It’s hard to imagine KLM is going to move that Lisbon flight to go any earlier. The airline will either need to push its flight to LA later (which has a ripple effect on the return) or there will no longer be a valid connection to that early flight.
You can walk through every different kind of scenario. Sometimes people will like the result, and sometimes they won’t. But pleasing the traveler isn’t really the point of these facilities anyway as far as the feds are concerned.