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US border checkpoint in UAE lures travellers vexed by wait

Dubai: A US border checkpoint located a day’s flight from New York in the Arabian Desert promises to become an oasis for weary travellers heading for the States.

US Customs and Border Protection opened an Abu Dhabi base on January 24, the first in the Middle East and the second outside the Americas after Ireland. Another post is planned in Dubai within a year as part of a push to combat terror threats before would-be perpetrators even board a plane that will also fast- track travellers through a routinely arduous entry process.

The US drive to tighten immigration security with overseas posts stands to deliver an advantage to Emirates and other fast-growing Arabian Gulf carriers because the overseas checks can shave hours from border crossings at major US gateways, the typically vexing finale to a long-distance trip. Passengers in Abu Dhabi can instead make use of the dead time between flights to complete the process, enhancing 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 United States 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”

Travellers 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. Ireland has enjoyed special pre-clearance rights for decades as a legacy of the early years of intercontinental travel, when US-Europe flights refuelled 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 per cent 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 widebody 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 address the issue of US border delays, “the answer shouldn’t be to outsource JFK to Abu Dhabi.”

As of Feb. 1, future pre-clearance applications must come from nations where US carriers offer flights following a law passed by Congress, said Kevin McAleenan, acting deputy commissioner at US Customs and Border Protection. Even with that directive, there will still likely remain an imbalance where agreements involve a major foreign hub.

While Delta and United Continental Holdings Inc. fly to Dubai and will benefit from pre-clearance, their services to Atlanta and Washington respectively are dwarfed by an Emirates network with direct connections to New York, Boston, Washington, Dallas, Houston, Seattle, San Francisco and Los Angeles.

McAleenan estimates his agency will process 400,000 passengers from Abu Dhabi this year, a 60 per cent jump.

“We think it’s smart and efficient,” he said. “We’re going to have fewer people in lines, shorter lines and more officers to process them.” The extension of the system to Dubai will have the same impact, “but on a greater scale,” he said.

Two senior Democrats on the House Homeland Security Committee — Representative Bennie Thompson of Mississippi and Cedric Richmond of Louisiana — questioned the Transportation Security Administration’s wisdom in allowing people pre-cleared in Abu Dhabi to avoid checks on connecting flights “during a time of heightened threats to the aviation sector.”

Allowing the UAE to fund the Abu Dhabi facility also encourages the border agency to rely on foreign states for cash, creating a “dangerous precedent,” according to the Airlines for America trade group. The agency should focus on shortening wait times in the US before opening sites overseas, Nicholas Calio, its CEO, said Jan. 14.

In Ireland, Aer Lingus Group is leveraging the allure of rapid border transit at its home hubs to offer 24 per cent more long-haul seats this year. The carrier began year-round flights to Boston from Shannon Feb. 6 and adds San Francisco in April, with all US services benefiting from pre-clearance.

Facilities in Dublin were upgraded in 2011, helping to drive the airport’s trans-Atlantic passenger count to a record 1.9 million last year. The transfer total surged 40 per cent to almost 600,000.

“Pre-clearance gives us a huge advantage because now we can go out with a really strong message,” Aer Lingus Network Revenue Director Neal O’Rourke said in an interview.

Services provided by American Airlines, US Airways, Delta and United also pre-clear in Ireland, as do British Airways flights to New York from London City airport, where the runway is too short for the Airbus Group NV A318 planes used to take off with sufficient kerosene, forcing a refuelling stop there.

“You land and you’re a domestic passenger, so it’s very easy,” said James Straker, a British citizen who has travelled via Dublin to John F. Kennedy airport. “With heightened security it’s taking longer.”