Airline industry groups complained that the omnibus appropriations bill that observers expect the U.S. Congress will pass this week does not prevent the Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agency from opening a controversial customs pre-clearance facility at Abu Dhabi International Airport.
“As written, the omnibus appropriations bill now merely provides an open-ended approval for future (pre-clearance) sites, regardless of the competitive harm they may cause to the U.S. airline industry and its employees. This is legislating at its worst,” the Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA) charged.
House and Senate negotiators released the $1.1 trillion government spending bill late on January 13. Language in the bill prohibits the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) from funding CBP “air pre-clearance agreements entering into force after February 1” unless it satisfies three conditions. The secretary of Homeland Security must certify to Congress that a customs pre-clearance facility at an airport provides “a homeland or national security benefit” to the U.S.; that U.S. carriers are not prevented from operating at existing pre-clearance locations; and that a U.S. carrier is operating at all airports where the department plans to start new pre-clearance operations.
U.S. Rep. Patrick Meehan (R-Pa.) offered an amendment to the appropriations bill that would have replaced the language to expressly prohibit the DHS from funding a pre-clearance facility at Abu Dhabi International Airport. Meehan and Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.) introduced separate legislation in November that also proposes blocking the Abu Dhabi pre-clearance facility; it has 133 co-sponsors. House leadership referred the bill to the subcommittee on border and maritime security.
The DHS, the parent organization of the CBP, negotiated an agreement with the UAE government to establish the pre-clearance facility last spring. No U.S. airline currently flies between Abu Dhabi and the U.S., and airline groups argue that the facility will benefit only Etihad Airways, Abu Dhabi’s government-owned airline. 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 U.S.
Airline groups allege that the White House is driving the decision to base a pre-clearance facility in Abu Dhabi. “We believe for geopolitical reasons that are unknown, President Obama’s administration traded this off against some unknown item,” ALPA president Lee Moak told reporters last month.
On January 14, Airlines for America (A4A), the trade organization representing major U.S. airlines, issued a release that describes the omnibus appropriations bill as a “win” for airline passengers and shippers because it contains no new aviation taxes and “dedicates significant resources” to hire additional CBP officers, which should help alleviate long customs lines. At the same time, it said, the bill “raises concerns” by permitting the CBP to open the Abu Dhabi pre-clearance facility on February 1. “A4A believes that CBP should focus on resolving lengthy wait times at U.S. international airports before opening new pre-clearance facilities overseas,” said A4A president and CEO Nicholas Calio. “We look forward to working with Congress and CBP to that end.”
Kevin McAleenan, CBP acting deputy commissioner, defended the Abu Dhabi basing decision at an aviation security conference ALPA and A4A hosted last month in Washington, D.C. “When our military shares the burdens and costs of protecting the American people with allies in the Middle East, it is applauded as smart and efficient national security policy,” he said. “That same standard should apply for our homeland security.”