The Obama administration and the U.S. Congress appear headed to a confrontation over the administration’s plan to open a customs pre-clearance facility at Abu Dhabi International Airport that many lawmakers and airline industry groups oppose. An opponent said the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agency plans to begin operating the facility on January 5.
On December 18, U.S. congressmen Patrick Meehan and Jim Gerlach, both Pennsylvania Republicans, held a press conference at Philadelphia International Airport to call attention to H.R. 3488, legislation Meehan introduced in the House that would prevent the CBP’s parent agency, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), from opening a pre-clearance facility at the Abu Dhabi airport as well as at Al Maktoum and Dubai International airports in the UAE. Leaders of Airlines for America (A4A), the Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA) and the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA joined the lawmakers.
At an aviation security conference one day earlier, however, Meehan’s legislative director said Congress likely could stop the CBP from opening the Abu Dhabi facility only by denying it funding through the appropriations process.
No U.S. airline currently flies between Abu Dhabi and the U.S., and airline groups argue that the preclearance facility would benefit only Etihad Airways, Abu Dhabi’s government-owned airline. Passengers traveling to the U.S. from Asia or Europe can now choose to fly Etihad and connect through Abu Dhabi to avoid long customs lines on arrival in the U.S.
Representatives of the CBP and airline groups stated their cases at the aviation security conference A4A and ALPA sponsored in Washington, D.C., on December 17. Kevin McAleenan, CBP acting deputy commissioner, described the UAE as “a strategic transit location for terrorist-related travel” that demands on-scene vigilance by U.S. customs officers. He said the Abu Dhabi preclearance facility will help alleviate long customs lines for all arriving passengers at New York JFK, Chicago O’Hare and Washington Dulles airports, where Etihad now flies, as well as at planned future destinations of Los Angeles and Dallas/Fort Worth. Last week Etihad announced plans to fly direct between Abu Dhabi and Dallas starting next December 3. The UAE government will share the cost of operating the facility and has committed to making Abu Dhabi Airport available to U.S. carriers, McAleenan said.
“If this commitment is not adhered to by the government of the United Arab Emirates and the Abu Dhabi airport company, it would discontinue preclearance operations,” he said. “The signs on this are positive, however. Etihad and American Airlines have entered into a code-share arrangement, and Abu Dhabi International Airport has expressed a keen interest in attracting U.S. carrier operations.”
Sharon Pinkerton, A4A senior vice president for legislative and regulatory policy, disputed that U.S. airlines are concerned the UAE government will deny them access; rather, she said, passenger traffic is insufficient for carriers to justify serving the airport. Currently, about 800 passengers a day depart Abu Dhabi, she said. “We’re not saying we’ve been denied access,” she added. “There’s just no business case for us to serve Abu Dhabi at this point. [There is] not enough traffic there to merit either a U.S. carrier or a preclearance facility.”