DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — Passengers travelling from the United Arab Emirates to the United States will avoid long U.S. Customs lines now that a new preclearance facility has opened in Abu Dhabi's airport, officials said on Sunday, although the development has drawn criticism from U.S. pilots and members of Congress.
Critics allege the decision to open the facility was made mainly on the basis of funding offered by the UAE, which pays 85 percent of the costs associated with the operation, including the salaries of U.S. Customs and Border officials.
In exchange, travelers may be lured to fly from Abu Dhabi direct to the United States on Etihad Airways, the UAE's national carrier and sole airline flying non-stop between the two locations. The facility does not process cargo.
The U.S. has preclearance passenger facilities throughout Canada, in four Caribbean locations and Ireland. The new facility in Abu Dhabi, which allows passengers to complete U.S. customs and immigration before boarding flights to the United States, is the Middle East's first. It is also the first preinspection arrangement to be enacted with another country since the 1980s.
U.S. Embassy spokesman Jeffrey Ladenson told The Associated Press that the first flight using the U.S. Customs and Border Protection preclearance inspection took off Friday from UAE's capital city of Abu Dhabi for Washington-Dulles airport.
Some U.S. lawmakers and domestic airline associations were angered because they say the decision gives competitive advantage to Etihad over U.S. airlines, which don't fly direct between Abu Dhabi and the U.S.
In a statement to the AP, Etihad said that additional flights to the U.S. will be processed via the facility in the coming days. The state-backed airline currently operates non-stop daily flights from Abu Dhabi to New York, Washington D.C. and Chicago. It plans more routes this year to Los Angeles and Dallas.
The airline has codeshare partnerships with JetBlue Airways and American Airlines that allow passengers to fly on routes operated by both carriers on a single ticket. The Air Line Pilots Association said on its website that it opposes the Abu Dhabi facility because only Etihad benefits from the agreement. Long customs lines at airports are already hurting U.S. airlines and passengers from Asia or Europe could opt to fly Etihad over U.S. carriers to avoid those lines, it added.
The Southwest Airlines Pilots' Association similarly raised questions about why Abu Dhabi airport was chosen, saying Friday that the traffic rate there for U.S.-bound passengers is less than a mere 200 per day on average, "making this a poor investment of U.S. taxpayers' increasingly limited resources."
One of the world's busiest airports, and the Middle East's largest, is in nearby Dubai, which does not have a U.S. Customs preclearance facility. "We are more than willing to compete against any airline in the world, including state-sponsored Middle East entities. However, Middle East entities that already enjoy generous state sponsorship should not receive additional government support from the U.S. taxpayer," Southwest Airlines Pilots' Association President Capt. Mark Richardson said in a statement.
In April, 14 members of Congress signed a letter to the Department of Homeland Security saying that the preclearance facility in Abu Dhabi "sets the dangerous precedent" of deploying customs resources based on third-party financing and "not national security, common sense or the needs of traveling taxpayers." In November, a bill was introduced in Congress to block the UAE facility, saying it "threatens American jobs" by encouraging travelers to use foreign airlines instead of U.S. carriers.
In defense of the facility, president of the U.S.-U.A.E. Business Council Danny Sebright wrote in July that government and airport authorities in Abu Dhabi have made it clear to U.S. airlines that they are welcome to fly to and from Abu Dhabi's International Airport to tap into this new preclearance program.
The opinion piece, which was published on The Hill's Congress Blog, argued that the program is good for travelers and saves the U.S. government money.
Associated Press writer Adam Schreck contributed to this report.