The U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is defending its plan to establish a customs pre-clearance facility at Abu Dhabi International Airport staffed by its Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agency but mostly funded by the host UAE government. Airline industry groups contend the facility will mainly benefit Etihad Airways, Abu Dhabi’s government-owned airline, and place U.S. carriers at a disadvantage in competing for passengers transiting the region.
Testifying before the House subcommittee on terrorism, nonproliferation and trade on July 10, Kevin McAleenan, CBP acting deputy commissioner, said the agency considers Abu Dhabi strategically important as a transit location for potential terrorists, including people identified on a terrorist watch list and “passengers whose travel history presents intelligence-based risk factors.”
By screening people early in the travel cycle, he added, CBP officers could protect against high-risk passengers seeking entry to the U.S. and also help relieve customs lines at New York JFK, Chicago O’Hare, Washington Dulles and eventually Los Angeles International Airport.
McAleenan’s remarks provided insight into the thinking at DHS, which has not responded to media requests for information since it negotiated an agreement with the UAE government to establish the pre-clearance facility in April. Under that agreement, the UAE will reimburse 85 percent of the cost of operating the facility. “Pre-clearance operations in Abu Dhabi offer CBP and DHS an unprecedented opportunity to project America’s border and aviation security efforts into the Middle East,” he said. “This is a cost-effective opportunity to protect the American public and international aviation that should not be missed.”
No U.S. airline currently flies between Abu Dhabi and the U.S., and airline groups argue that the pre-clearance facility would benefit only Etihad Airways. Passengers traveling to the U.S. from Asia or Europe could choose to fly Etihad and connect through Abu Dhabi to avoid long customs lines on arrival in the United States. Nicholas Calio, Airlines for America president and CEO, and Air Line Pilots Association president Lee Moak testified at the hearing.
“What we have here basically is the United States government picking winners and losers in the international aviation business, and the winners are the international competitors of U.S.-based airlines,” Calio said. “For the UAE this is not a national security issue; it’s a commercial play. It’s about diverting traffic that otherwise would fly on American metal to their own airplanes for which they don’t have the population to fill.”
McAleenan said the DHS has negotiated guarantees in the pre-clearance agreement with the UAE that U.S. carriers get equal access to the airport, and he disclosed that representatives of United Airlines and Delta Air Lines met with airport authorities in May. “If American airlines were prevented from flying in and out of Abu Dhabi, we would not establish a pre-clearance location there,” he said.
On June 6, the House passed its version of the Fiscal Year 2014 DHS appropriations bill containing an amendment that would prohibit the department from using taxpayer money to fund the Abu Dhabi pre-clearance operation. The Senate has not yet passed its version of the DHS appropriations legislation.