Bill Would Give Congress a Say in U.S. Customs Facilities

 - June 11, 2014, 11:30 PM
In April 2013, Etihad Airways CEO James Hogan, l, and U.S. ambassador to UAE Michael Corbin celebrated Etihad's service to the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area. (Photo: Bill Carey)

The U.S. Congress would have a say in White House plans to open customs pre-clearance facilities in foreign countries under legislation a House committee passed on June 11. Airline industry groups, which last year opposed but failed to prevent the opening of such a facility at Abu Dhabi International Airport, appear to have accepted the legislation even as news surfaced of U.S. plans to open a pre-clearance facility in Dubai.

The House Homeland Security Committee reported out a bill introduced by Rep. Patrick Meehan (R-Pa.), that would set conditions under which the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) establishes pre-clearance facilities run by its Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agency outside of the U.S. Among provisions, the legislation requires the department to notify congressional committees at least 180 days before the CBP enters into a pre-clearance agreement with a foreign country. At least one U.S. passenger carrier must operate to the planned airport location. If the average customs processing time at the 25 busiest U.S. airports for international passengers “significantly exceeds” that of a foreign pre-clearance facility, the DHS must provide a “remediation plan” for reducing that processing time.

When Meehan submitted the bill in November, it specifically prohibited the DHS from establishing pre-clearance facilities at Abu Dhabi, Al Maktoum and Dubai international airports in the UAE, and at Doha International Airport in Qatar. During the House committee’s mark-up of the legislation, chairman Michael McCaul (R-Texas) offered an “amendment in the nature of a substitute” that replaced the original text of the bill and eliminated that language. Meehan inserted a separate amendment that requires the DHS to provide “information on the potential economic, competitive and job impacts on United States air carriers associated with establishing such pre-clearance operations.” In opening remarks, McCaul said the amended legislation “is a result of extensive consultation with industry and CBP.”

In a press release, Airlines for America (A4A), the trade organization representing major U.S. airlines, praised the committee’s action. “The bill creates a number of notifications and certifications CBP must make to Congress before establishing pre-clearance facilities at new locations,” A4A said. “Notably, any new location must be served by U.S. carriers and CBP would be required to consult with stakeholders, including airlines, prior to entering into an agreement with a foreign government.” The airline group also commended the legislation’s “fix it here first” approach to reducing customs processing times at U.S. gateways.

Last year, the DHS and UAE government negotiated an agreement to open the Abu Dhabi pre-clearance facility, causing a storm of protest from groups including A4A and the Air Line Pilots Association. They charged that the facility would 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. No U.S. airline flies direct to Abu Dhabi. 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. Nevertheless, the CBP opened the pre-clearance facility at Abu Dhabi International’s Terminal 3 in January.

The U.S. is reportedly now planning a second pre-clearance facility in the UAE. In an interview with Arabian Business, Michael Corbin, the U.S. ambassador to the UAE, said the Obama administration plans to extend pre-clearance services to Dubai within a year. “Dubai is more complex because you have flights leaving from different terminals and more U.S. flights. But‎ I think it can be done in 10 months to a year. The challenge is more logistical than political,” he told the online news portal. Corbin spoke at a Los Angeles event celebrating the launch of Etihad Airways’ daily service between Abu Dhabi and Los Angeles.