A US border checkpoint located a day’s flight from New York in the Arabian desert promises to become an oasis for weary travelers heading for the States.
The US Customs and Border Protection opened an Abu Dhabi base on Jan. 24, the first in the Middle East and outside the Americas besides Ireland. Another post is planned in Dubai within a year to fast-track travelers through the routinely arduous immigration process, as the US seeks to eliminate terror threats before would-be perpetrators even board a plane.
The US drive to tighten immigration security with overseas posts stands to deliver an advantage to Emirates and other fast-growing Persian Gulf carriers because the overseas checks can shave hours from crossing the border at major US gateways, typically the most vexing finale to a long-distance flight. Passengers in Abu Dhabi can instead make use of the dead time between flights to complete the process, lifting the allure of the luxurious Gulf airports as global travel hubs.
“The flight is long and you get exhausted, and then you wait there for hours,” said Sahar Riaz, 17, a student who travels from Dubai to the US as many as three times a year to visit her sister in New York. “It’s much more convenient to finish everything from here because you’re not as tired as you would be when you arrive in the US.”
International travelers can stand in line for 4 1/2 hours at John F. Kennedy International Airport, the US Travel Association said Sept. 18.
By contrast, transferring to a New York-bound plane in Dublin can take as little as 1 hour 15 minutes. The country has enjoyed special pre-clearance rights for decades as a legacy of the early years of intercontinental travel, when US-Europe flights refueled there.
The US Air Line Pilots Association says convenience shouldn’t be the chief consideration after security, and that the United Arab Emirates agreement puts American jobs at risk. Terms of the accord mean it will bear 85 percent of the cost of facilities while handing full legal authority to the US.
“The primary purpose of customs pre-clearance should be to facilitate travel on US airlines,” ALPA says in a position paper on its website. “It should not be to benefit foreign airlines financially nor facilitate unfair advantages.”
The United Arab Emirates is the first Middle Eastern country to seek pre-clearance for America-bound passengers as part of a decade-long US push to promote the policy beyond a handful of legacy agreements dating to the 1970s and beyond.
Previous accords have been limited to nine terminals in Canada and a handful in the Caribbean, Bahamas and Bermuda, plus Dublin and Shannon in Ireland.
Those airports are used by several US airlines, together with local operators that pose little competitive threat – unlike Emirates and Abu Dhabi-based Etihad Airways PJSC, which are building their Gulf bases into intercontinental transfer hubs served by vast fleets of the newest wide-body jets.
Whereas Etihad has direct flights to New York, Washington and Chicago and will add Los Angeles from June, with onward links to 40 cities via New York-based JetBlue Airways Corp., not a single US carrier serves Abu Dhabi.
Delta Air Lines Inc. Chief Executive Officer Richard Anderson told analysts in July that in seeking to combat US border delays, “the answer shouldn’t be to outsource JFK to Abu Dhabi.”