Industry Groups Oppose U.S. Customs Clearance at Abu Dhabi

 - April 29, 2013, 11:32 AM
A U.S. customs pre-clearance facility meant to ease travel through Abu Dhabi International Airport would give Etihad Airways an unfair advantage, industry groups allege. (Photo: Abu Dhabi Airports Company)

Aviation industry groups in the U.S. and Europe oppose a U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) plan to establish a customs pre-clearance facility at Abu Dhabi International Airport that would spare passengers the inconvenience of waiting at a customs checkpoint upon arrival in the U.S. A bipartisan group of U.S. lawmakers also questions the plan and has requested more information from the DHS.

In a letter sent earlier this month, seven U.S. industry groups asked DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano to forgo an agreement that would enlist the UAE government to fund the facility, saying that it would “set a dangerous and unauthorized precedent” for the department to shift its sources of funding to include foreign governments. Although they do not mention it by name, the organizations also contend that customs pre-clearance would help Etihad Airways, Abu Dhabi’s government-owned carrier, attracting passengers by facilitating their travel to the U.S. through its home airport.

“At a time when U.S. carriers and airports are fighting to maintain our global competitiveness, the U.S. government should not be signing a deal that benefits a foreign emirate and its wholly owned national carrier, particularly since no U.S. carrier serves that emirate,” says the letter, signed by Airlines for America, the Air Line Pilots Association, Airports Council International–North America, the Consumer Travel Alliance, the Global Business Travel Association and the Regional Airline Association.

The Brussels-based Association of European Airlines (AEA) argues in a press release that the Abu Dhabi pre-clearance facility “would be detrimental to a level playing field in the transatlantic aviation market.” While U.S.-bound passengers departing or transferring through Abu Dhabi International would avoid customs lines on arrival, travelers from Europe remain subject to waits that have reached an “unacceptable level.” The association notes that staffing reductions by U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) due to federal government budget cuts will only make matters worse. CBP operates as a constituent agency of the DHS.

Fourteen Republican and Democratic members of the House sent a letter to Napolitano requesting more information about the Abu Dhabi facility on April 18. The signers include the chairmen and ranking members of the House Transportation and Homeland Security committees. “[W]e are concerned that establishing a CBP pre-clearance facility in Abu Dhabi sets the dangerous precedent of deploying customs resources based on the availability of third-party financing, not national security, common sense or the needs of traveling taxpayers,” the letter states.

The U.S. does operate customs pre-clearance facilities at eight Canadian airports, Dublin and Shannon airports in Ireland and certain airports in the Caribbean served by U.S. carriers. The DHS did not respond to AIN’s request for more information regarding the planned Abu Dhabi facility. In early April, the leadership of Etihad Airways and the U.S. and UAE ambassadors participated in a series of events in Washington, D.C., to celebrate the start of daily flights by the airline from Abu Dhabi to Washington’s Dulles International Airport.