A U.S. border checkpoint located a day’s flight from New York in the Arabian desert promises to become an oasis for weary travelers heading for the States.
The U.S. Customs and Border Protection opened an Abu Dhabi base on Jan. 24, the first in the Middle East and outside the Americas besides Ireland. Another post is planned in Dubai within a year to fast-track travelers through the routinely arduous immigration process, as the U.S. seeks to eliminate terror threats before would-be perpetrators even board a plane.
The U.S. drive to tighten immigration security with overseas posts stands to deliver an advantage to Emirates and other fast-growing Persian Gulf carriers because the overseas checks can shave hours from crossing the border at major U.S. gateways, typically the most vexing finale to a long-distance flight. Passengers in Abu Dhabi can instead make use of the dead time between flights to complete the process, lifting the allure of the luxurious Gulf airports as global travel hubs.
“The flight is long and you get exhausted, and then you wait there for hours,” said Sahar Riaz, 17, a student who travels from Dubai to the U.S. as many as three times a year to visit her sister in New York. “It’s much more convenient to finish everything from here because you’re not as tired as you would be when you arrive in the U.S.”
International travelers can stand in line for 4 1/2 hours at John F. Kennedy International Airport, the U.S. Travel Association said Sept. 18.
Convenience vs. Safety
By contrast, transferring to a New York-bound plane in Dublin can take as little as 1 hour 15 minutes. The country has enjoyed special pre-clearance rights for decades as a legacy of the early years of intercontinental travel, when U.S.-Europe flights refueled there.
The U.S. Air Line Pilots Association says convenience shouldn’t be the chief consideration after security, and that the United Arab Emirates agreement puts American jobs at risk. Terms of the accord mean it will bear 85 percent of the cost of facilities while handing full legal authority to the U.S.,
“The primary purpose of customs pre-clearance should be to facilitate travel on U.S. airlines,” ALPA says in a position paper on its website. “It should not be to benefit foreign airlines financially nor facilitate unfair advantages.”
The United Arab Emirates is the first Middle Eastern country to seek pre-clearance for America-bound passengers as part of a decade-long U.S. push to promote the policy beyond a handful of legacy agreements dating to the 1970s and beyond.
Previous accords have been limited to nine terminals in Canada and a handful in the Caribbean, Bahamas and Bermuda, plus Dublin and Shannon in Ireland.
Those airports are used by several U.S. airlines, together with local operators that pose little competitive threat — unlike Emirates and Abu Dhabi-based Etihad Airways PJSC, which are building their Gulf bases into intercontinental transfer hubs served by vast fleets of the newest wide-body jets.
Whereas Etihad has direct flights to New York, Washington and Chicago and will add Los Angeles from June, with onward links to 40 cities via New York-based JetBlue Airways Corp., not a single U.S. carrier serves Abu Dhabi.
Delta Air Lines Inc. Chief Executive Officer Richard Anderson told analysts in July that in seeking to combat U.S. border delays, “the answer shouldn’t be to outsource JFK to Abu Dhabi.”
As of Feb. 1, future pre-clearance applications must come from nations where U.S. carriers already offer flights following a law passed by Congress, said Kevin McAleenan, the director of the U.S. Customs and Border Protection. Even with that directive, there will still likely remain an imbalance where agreements involve a major foreign hub.
While Delta and United Continental Holdings Inc. fly to Dubai and will benefit from pre-clearance, their services to Atlanta and Washington respectively are dwarfed by an Emirates network with direct connections to New York, Boston, Washington, Dallas, Houston, Seattle, San Francisco and Los Angeles.
McAleenan estimates his agency will process 400,000 passengers from Abu Dhabi this year, a 60 percent jump.
“We think it’s smart and efficient,” he said. “We’re going to have fewer people in lines, shorter lines and more officers to process them.” The extension of the system to Dubai will have the same impact, “but on a greater scale,” he said.
In Ireland, Aer Lingus Group Plc is leveraging the allure of rapid border transit at its home hubs to offer 24 percent more long-haul seats this year. The carrier began year-round flights to Boston from Shannon on Feb. 6 and will add San Francisco in April, with all U.S. services benefiting from pre-clearance.
Facilities in Dublin were upgraded in 2011, helping to drive the airport’s trans-Atlantic passenger count to a record 1.9 million last year. The transfer total surged 40 percent to almost 600,000.
“Pre-clearance gives us a huge advantage because now we can go out with a really strong message,” Aer Lingus Network Revenue Director Neal O’Rourke said in an interview.
Services provided by American Airlines, US Airways, Delta and United also pre-clear in Ireland, as do British Airways flights to New York from London City airport, where the runway is too short for the Airbus Group NV A318 planes used to take off with sufficient kerosene, forcing a refueling stop there.
“You land and you’re a domestic passenger, so it’s very easy,” said James Straker, a U.K. citizen who has traveled via Dublin to New York’s John F. Kennedy airport. “With heightened security it’s taking longer.”
Editors: Christopher Jasper and Benedikt Kammel.
To contact the editor responsible for this story: Benedikt Kammel at [email protected],