Dubai Airport US Pre-Clearance Facility Coming?

In January, Abu Dhabi Airport added a US customs pre-clearance facility, whereby you clear customs and immigration prior to boarding your US-bound flights.

Abu-Dhabi-Preclearance-1
Abu Dhabi Airport US pre-clearance signage

In early June — prior to the inaugural Etihad Airways flight from Abu Dhabi to Los AngelesI used the facility. The facility was simply a bloody mess:

  • You’re supposed to start clearing customs & immigration two hours before departure, but once you clear it there’s no shopping/food, but just one small coffee stand. So as a business or first class passenger you’re sitting in the gate area rather than in the lounge.
  • Security is a mess, and even more superficially strict than in the US (who knew that was possible?!). For example, you have to take your shoes out of your bag.
  • US-bound flights from Abu Dhabi have consistently been delayed. 60-90 minute delays seem to be the norm for US-bound flights.

And just to look at the statistics, per FlightStats.com, here’s the on-time performance for Etihad’s New York flight, EY101, which uses the pre-clearance facility:

EY101-FlightStats-1
EY101-FlightStats-2

Yep, a whopping 13% on-time record. And the Chicago flight, EY151, which uses pre-clearance, has a 6% on-time record:

EY101-FlightStats-3
EY101-FlightStats-4

But via Arabian Business, it seems that Etihad’s CEO disagrees (bolding mine):

Etihad Airways president and CEO James Hogan added: “This is a game changer as far as Etihad is concerned. The facility has made a huge difference and really couldn’t have gone better. It’s great not just if you are flying direct to the US from Abu Dhabi but also connecting from elsewhere in the region.”

A game changer and it really couldn’t have gone better? Are you f&^$ing kidding me? Has he used the facility?

It’s one thing to say “well, we’re still trying to work out the kinks, but overall we’re pleased,” but to say that it’s a game changer and couldn’t have gone any better is a babbling brook of bull$hit if I’ve ever heard one. I’ve heard tons of people say they’d avoid Abu Dhabi because of this facility, but haven’t heard anyone saying “oh, this sounds so awesome, I’m totally going to connect in Abu Dhabi now.”

Actually, quick straw poll — has anyone used the facility and been so happy with it that they’d go out of their way to connect in Abu Dhabi again just to use it?

crickets

Well, when you implement a horrible system “perfectly executed game changer” in one place, the logical conclusion is to expand it… right? Via Arabian Business, it seems like that’s what they’re looking to do in Dubai (bolding mine):

The United States is set to extend its immigration pre-clearance facility to include Dubai as well as Abu Dhabi within the next year, the US ambassador to the UAE has told Arabian Business.

Speaking at an event in Los Angeles to celebrate the launch of direct flights from Abu Dhabi on Etihad Airways, Michael Corbin said: “‎We are looking at Dubai as an option for pre-clearance. It has only been operational for a few months in Abu Dhabi but has been a huge success and we want to expand it in the UAE. President Obama has made it his priority to encourage more visitors to the US and this is a big part of that.”

If you think the Abu Dhabi pre-clearance facility is a mess, it would have nothing on the Dubai pre-clearance facility. Dubai Airport has multiple terminals and concourses, and even consolidating all of the US-bound flights in one place would be challenging, especially in light of the A380 terminal. I mean, in the A380 terminal you can board US-bound flights directly from the lounges, which is a huge selling point of the concourse. That simply wouldn’t be possible if they somehow created a pre-clearance facility.


Board directly from the lounge at Dubai Airport

I guess the only president of a Middle Eastern airline with a head on his shoulders anymore is Tim Clark of Emirates. In this video he correctly calls such a facility a logistical nightmare, and (correctly) identifies that a pre-clearance facility isn’t the solution:

To paraphrase the key part of what he says:

“I’m not sure the benefits are that great given the scale of what we are doing into the US at the moment. The trick, really, is for the US government to restore its human resources to its entry points so it can meet the requirements of the consumers that want to go into the US. This is all a result of a shutdown of the resources that have fallen into border protection in the US.”

Ding, ding, ding, we have a winner! Why don’t we work on improving the flow of US immigration facilities in the US, by properly staffing them during peak hours, adding more automated machines (as we’re now seeing at some US entry points), etc.?

Bottom line

Look, I’m not trying to be a big ol’ drama queen here, but there are some things that really grind my gears. The fact that something can be so poorly executed, yet both the CEO of the airline and the government officials basically call it a perfect success, just leaves me shaking my head.

And it’s one thing if such stupidity is isolated, but the fact that they think it’s such a success that they should expand it further is what really makes me mad. I hope that Emirates pushes back…

Agree? Disagree? I’d love to hear your thoughts!

Comments

  1. Agree with Clark. Only really works in places like YYZ, where there are enough facilities post-immigration/security to make the wait OK.

  2. I agree with all of your criticisms, Ben. After my March 28 horror show in Abu Dhabi, I sent the following note to James Hogan:

    “I’m writing to share with you my concern about the lounge-to-aircraft experience for Etihad first-class passengers in Abu Dhabi. While your airline provided me with some very good in-flight experiences between Washington and Abu Dhabi and many outstanding pre-flight services (particularly the new lounge at Washington Dulles and the seamless chauffeur car service), the time-consuming hassle of clearing U.S. customs and immigration in Abu Dhabi nearly ruined the return trip.

    It took me 90 minutes, walking a kilometer with carry-on baggage (and no Thai Airway buggy to compensate), and queuing in four separate lines to get from the Etihad Lounge to the gate. Etihad personnel were directing passengers — regardless of class of service — into security lines, meaning that there was no fast track for premium- class passengers. The security facilities were overburdened by passengers leaving for Chicago, New York, and Washington around the same time.

    When I arrived at the chaotic gate, there was a further queue for checking identification, with no separate treatment for premium-class passengers. Once I cleared that queue, I found that there were no open seats anywhere in the gate area and a further 40-minute wait.

    Had I flown from an airport without such a U.S. Customs and Border Protection facility, I would have cleared immigration and customs in the United States, where I use my Global Entry card. That allows me to clear customs and immigration in about 20 minutes, with most of that time spent waiting for baggage delivery. Before departing for the United States, I also would have been able to relax more in the lounge, rather than spend time trudging around or queuing in the airport or waiting at a crowded gate.

    As someone who frequently flies as a (paying) first-class passenger, the experience at Abu Dhabi gave me pause about future travel. The lounge-to-aircraft experience reminded me of my experience trying to transit Mumbai last year on my way to Sri Lanka — time-consuming, unpleasant, and resulting in many thoughts of “never again.” Surely it is time for a re-think.”

  3. Despite all of the challenges with preclearance, for foreign citizens who are sometimes met with 4-hour waits in the customs line upon arrival in the US — without even so much as that one coffee shop! — AUH could still be preferable. And since US airports don’t offer any sort of “fast track” that 4-hour wait could also apply to a foreign citizen flying in First Class. So I can see how this is still a positive value proposition for lots of people, even if it’s actually an annoyance for people who have Precheck and fly in premium class.

  4. @ Ben: You said “Why don’t we work on improving the flow of US immigration facilities in the US, by properly staffing them during peak hours, adding more automated machines” Well, there is a reason it will not happen. Majority of these expenses in UAE cities are paid by the local governments. Why would US do that in their own airports to hire extra staff.

  5. I passed through AUH last month on a flight to IAD. There weren’t huge lines anywhere, priority lines were available for First and Business class passengers, and Global Entry was up and running. Yes, the walk from the lounge to the facility takes a bit, and there is nothing after clearing security. But, I was through the whole process in maybe 10 minutes, tops. By the way, this was prior to your flight AUH-LAX. I can say that I had a very positive experience, but would not go out of my way to connect in AUH. But I wouldn’t avoid it, either. I don’t think pre-clearance will work in DXB, for the same reasons that you state.

    Eric

  6. Reposting what I said on your blog comments back in January when this facility first opened.

    ===

    The irony is that Etihad really didn’t want this facility but it was forced upon them politically by their government. From an operational standpoint, pre-clearance is a nightmare for a non-US carrier who relies primarily on connecting traffic through their hub and limited onward connections at US gateway. The minimum connecting times at your hub have to be increased to enable pre-clearance and your presentation profile is not a smooth flow (as passengers are mainly arriving on connecting flights). This inefficiency is not clawed back at the other end since the passengers are for the most part not system-captive at that point. It basically reduces your potential aircraft utility and system flexibility as a result.

    Etihad have trying to reduce this problem by hiring away a very respected senior scheduling manager from Air Canada recently who has huge experience with scheduling around pre-clearance challenges, but that will only mitigate the issue rather than solve it.

    Bottom line is that this is a marketing gimmick that actually increases Etihad’s costs rather than giving them any real advantage.

    ===

    Emirates doesn’t want the facility either, but like Etihad they may be powerless if this is forced on them by the Government. The only difference between Tim Clark and James Hogan is their willingness to speak their true feelings about the situation!

  7. Lucky Said: A game changer and it really couldn’t have gone better? Are you f&^$ing kidding me? Has he used the facility? It’s one thing to say “well, we’re still trying to work out the kinks, but overall we’re pleased,” but to say that it’s a game changer and couldn’t have gone any better is a babbling brook of bull$hit if I’ve ever heard one. I’ve heard tons of people say they’d avoid Abu Dhabi because of this facility, but haven’t heard anyone saying “oh, this sounds so awesome, I’m totally going to connect in Abu Dhabi now.”
    ^ A bit more cussing than I expected, but I greatly appreciated your willingness to take an adversarial tone. Sometimes when life gives you lemons you just need to toss the lemons back.

    Bravo Ben!

  8. Odds are James Hogan is just trying to placate his ultimate bosses – the government – by toeing the company line.

    I’ve heard about Dubai facility awhile back – I’m sure that if the UAE government mandates this, Emirates will have to find some way to make this happen; perhaps they will make some exceptions like Etihad did so not 100% of the US flights will do pre-clearance.

  9. You really should not be allowed to complain Ben. You travel the world for no apparent reason and like to view this as a “job” but it really isn’t. If your parents didn’t use your credit cards for the business spending you would not be able to do this. You have no right to complain about the hassle of traveling or jet lag, you are choosing to do this, it’s not like you would loose your job if you stopped writing trip reports because that has not happened any time recently and your still doing fine. But honestly you have absolutely no right to complain at all.

  10. @ Dhaba You should stick to commenting at Yahoo which is your real home. It is obvious that you’re green with jealousy. Now go crawl back under that rock in your parents’ basement and lick yourself.

    @Sean M ‘your presentation profile is not a smooth flow (as passengers are mainly arriving on connecting flights). This inefficiency is not clawed back at the other end since the passengers are for the most part not system-captive at that point. It basically reduces your potential aircraft utility and system flexibility as a result.’

    plaiin language is your friend and it is likly that nobody other than Ben uunderstood any of what you wrote!!

  11. I understood what Sean M said.

    Also, no need to attack other people who criticize Lucky, he can defend himself quite well. Not every criticism is based on “jealousy” (which is as dumb a counterargument as “haters keep on hating”…the last resource of someone who can’t come up with an effective counterargument).

    “Majority of these expenses in UAE cities are paid by the local governments. Why would US do that in their own airports to hire extra staff.”

    Yup. Why have the US government pay for it themselves when the UAE royal families will subsidize the majority of the costs?

  12. I have used the Ireland Dublin pre clear facility and it was also a mess. You have to go through another security checkpoint in front of pre clearance and even though I had global entry, the line was so long for immigration, that they had to stop the security checkpoint. It took liked 30-45 minutes to get through, but this is wear global entry came in handy. The normal immigration line was super long while the global entry line was only about 5 people. If I did not have global entry I may have missed my flight!

  13. My wife and I used the US preclearance facility at Abu Dabhi Airport in April 2015. There is a small first class lounge after US preclearance that offers sandwiches and beverages. Upon arrivel at JFK, we were greeted by a Etihaad representative with a placard at the gate of the aircraft, and guided to the baggage carousel. We had to point our bags, which were picked up by a valet, who took us to a waiting limo, that courteously dropped us to our destination. I beleive we had a very satisfying experience ! I beleive First Class is not a ticket, it is a way of life. If there is someone in a wheelchair, and one has a first class ticket, one must let them pass and assist them.

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