Etihad’s Abu Dhabi Pre-Clearance Is Still A Disaster

Last week I wrote about my flight in Etihad first class on Wednesday, whereby they ran out of food several hours before landing… for my second longhaul flight in a row!

I’ve also written in the past about the new Abu Dhabi US pre-clearance facility. Basically on select US bound flights you clear customs & immigration in Abu Dhabi, and then land in the US as a domestic flight.

The UAE is picking up most of the cost of the facility, thinking it’s a big selling point for flying Etihad out of Abu Dhabi.

The problem is that the pre-clearance facility in Abu Dhabi is a complete mess.

I’ll go so far as to say it’s quite possibly the most dysfunctional facility I’ve ever seen at an airport. Virtually no flights have left on-time since this was introduced, and passengers hate the facility.

But if you ask Etihad you’ll get a different story. Etihad’s CEO was quoted as saying:

“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.”

There aren’t many things that really piss me off. I can appreciate the innovation in trying the facility, so can’t fault them for it. And I also do believe Etihad genuinely thought it would be a selling point of flying out of Abu Dhabi, so I do think it was well intentioned. For that matter, I could also appreciate if the CEO said “we are still working out some kinks and evaluating the program.”

But for the CEO of the world’s fastest growing airline to say that a facility “couldn’t have gone any better” when flight operations using the facility are departing an average of two hours late, makes me livid.

I’m passionate about this industry, and I want to see airlines do well. But there’s no way an airline can do well long term if their CEO is so out of touch with reality, or is willing to completely fabricate the state of a situation for the purpose of making bureaucrats happy.

I wrote about my experience when I flew Etihad out of Abu Dhabi in June, so let me share what happened on my flight this Wednesday.

I was on the 10:30AM Etihad flight from Abu Dhabi to New York. At 8:30AM the attendant in the first class lounge told me I must leave the lounge now or else I will miss the flight. I explained I had Global Entry, but she insisted I needed to depart right away, So I did.

I followed the signage to the far end of the terminal, where the US pre-clearance facility is found.

Abu-Dhabi-PreClearance

First you wait in a queue to get your boarding passes checked. There are four US bound flights leaving within two hours of one another (Chicago, Los Angeles, New York, and Washington). There is a special first and business class lane, but there’s no one enforcing who goes in that queue, and the area is shared with wheelchair passengers.

I can’t put into words the number of people I heard grumbling in that queue. I’m used to people being pissy at airports, but everyone was griping nonstop.

After that was the security checkpoint. You clear security after check-in, and then have to go through another checkpoint to enter the pre-clearance area. And that’s fine, but it’s quite possibly the most superficially detailed and rude security checkpoint I’ve ever been through. I had to turn on all my electronics and even take shoes out of my bag, along with the crap you usually go through.

Again, there’s a premium line, but it’s in the same area as wheelchair passengers, and poorly enforced. And with how tightly the US flights are timed you’re potentially looking at ~180 premium passengers trying to use the lane at about the same time.

After that is immigration. There are two Global Entry kiosks so I had my “slip” in no time, but then I had to wait in the queue to talk to an immigration officer, which was (again) shared with wheelchair passengers.

I figured I’d just have to show the slip, but the agent grilled me. He asked my name, where I’m from, etc. I was fine with that of course, but it was just a bit uncharacteristic for a Global Entry experience. I actually ended up having a nice five minute conversation with him about the whole Abu Dhabi Pre-clearance facility.

He was frustrated beyond words by the whole facility, as he used to work at a Canadian pre-clearance facility (those facilities actually make sense). He kept saying “I’m not allowed to comment about this facility, but…”

Great.

So despite all that, I was then through immigration and security, and it was only 9:15AM or so (but still 45 minutes after leaving the lounge).

At least I figured I could sit down in the gate area. The problem is Etihad doesn’t actually open the gate area until boarding starts, so you’re kind of just stuck standing in the small departure area. There’s a single coffee kiosk, but nothing else to do on that side of security.

No restaurants.

No shopping.

No lounges.

And you can’t even bring bottled water or anything, since it’s confiscated at the security checkpoint.

Etihad-Gate-Area

My boarding pass said that boarding would begin at 9:30AM, though at 9:30AM there was no agent working my gate.

Instead they were announcing literally a dozen “last and final” boarding calls for the Etihad flight to Los Angeles.

I was so amazed by how horrible the situation was, that I sought out the gate manager to share some feedback. After all, if no one says anything there’s no way they can really know how unpleasant the facility is.

He was friendly, and I explained to him that as a first class passenger it’s ridiculous that I was more or less forced to leave the lounge two hours early and there’s literally nowhere to even sit past security. The least they could do is open up the gate area so there’s at least seating for passengers. And then I mentioned how generally unpleasant the experience is.

I asked him if he had a single on-time flight that week using the pre-clearance facility. He said he hadn’t, and seemed to share my overall feeling about the facility.

At 10:15AM (45 minutes after the posted boarding time) the crew slowly began to show up, one by one.

I asked the gate supervisor why the crew was showing up roughly 15 minutes before our scheduled departure time.

“Oh the queues at the pre-clearance facility were long, it took them a while.”

And they couldn’t plan for that?!

You know your system is broken when the crew is strolling towards the gate one-by-one 15 minutes before departure.

Finally the crew was all aboard by about 10:30AM, and at 11AM boarding finally began.

Etihad-777

While most passengers were aboard by 11:30AM, there was a further delay of over an hour which wasn’t initially explained to us, but was because we were still waiting on other passengers in the facility.

For anyone still keeping track, we’re at over four and a half hours from when I left the first class lounge in Abu Dhabi to the departure of my Etihad flight.

I asked a handful of crew members whether they had operated a single on-time flight to the US since the facility started. They universally hadn’t, and individually noted the two hour delay is now standard.

Look, there are bigger issues in the world, I get that. I’m not trying to say “the major problems in the world are Etihad’s pre-clearance facility in Abu Dhabi and world hunger.”

But I’m genuinely really passionate about this industry, and over the years I’ve learned what works and what doesn’t.

For example, while I take some ethical issues with Qatar’s CEO Akbar Al Baker, the guy is growing on me otherwise. Because his anal-retentive attention to detail is actually reflected in every aspect of the Qatar experience. You know why the lounge had a delayed opening? I can assure you because His Excellency was touching every wall, checking every toilet cover, and trying every meal himself. Because he’s that ridiculous and over-the-top passionate about the little details, even to a fault.

I have a lot of respect for James Hogan, Etihad’s CEO. Based on everything I’ve heard he’s a really bright guy and seems to do a good job running the airline.

But what I don’t understand – and what actually offends me – is that he would claim that the facility couldn’t be going any better.

It shows a lack of respect for his customers (who find the experience miserable), his pilots and cabin crew (who find the experience miserable), and his ground crew (who find the experience miserable).

Saying the facility is operating as well as it could suggests that nothing is being done to innovate it, which shows a complete disregard for the time and experience of everyone involved.

If anyone from Etihad is reading this, feel free to reach out. I want you guys to succeed and really love your airline.

But I’d love to hear what you think it says about your airline when a facility that has caused unquantifiable customer aggravation and delays averaging two hours per flight “couldn’t be going any better?”

Is this a sentiment Etihad leadership still believes?

I genuinely don’t believe that there’s a single passenger that has been thrilled by the facility and would choose Etihad over another airline because of it.

So if by “game changer” you mean it will cause passengers to fly other airlines, then I think you’re right — it will change that “game.”

And if by “it couldn’t go any better” you mean you’ve realized it’s a horrible idea and there’s no saving it other than eliminating it entirely, then I think that’s true as well.

If anyone has any experience with the Abu Dhabi pre-clearance facility recently, please do leave your feedback, be it positive or negative.

I’m sure someone at Etihad will see this, and I’m sure they’d love to hear your thoughts as well.

Comments

  1. Food you can plan for. This you can’t, other than sacrifice an extra 4 hours of your day.

    Have you heard back from them re: running out of food?

  2. When I flew AUH to LAX a couple weeks ago, they had free Etihad bottled water on the ledges in between all the seats at the gate.

    I don’t know how we got so lucky with a great experience there, but maybe the LAX flight being first of the day makes it the only one without terrible lines.. and with free water still around.

  3. Lucky, I flew out of AUH back in May, and had a similar lounge experience, however, be it my New Yorker upbringing or otherwise, I promptly ignored the lounge attendant the first two times. I finished my breakfast, and eventually headed to the lounge, probably 20-25 minutes after the attendants’ first mention. We too had similar experiences behind wheelchair customers (I do wonder if they have as many “miracles” as they do on a Southwest flight to Orlando). I think the Security is over the top, however, I suspect that is because they are being heavily scrutinized. I think what makes the experience worse is that it is night and day compared to the security you go through to enter the “main” part of the airport (after UAE immigrations). We ended up waiting another half hour or so outside of security. I’d say the primary difference in timing though is just pushing back on the staff. Its a negative reinforcement, right? If I *know* the plane will depart late, or that I’ll be left waiting at the gate, then no matter how much someone tells me to leave the comfortable first class lounge, I’m going to slow walk it, enjoy my meal or my beverage, and take my time.

  4. Appreciate this. I go US India once a year, usually in a premium cabin. I’ll consider EY for the outbound but no way in hell am I coming back via AUH.

  5. I always like the hypocresy in all this. The US has by far the worst clearance on immegration for all citizens (actually probably israel is worse) with officers treating people without any respect and creating huge issues for connections at any US airport, regardless of travel class. Only the regular traveler with global entry can escape. For me this has become a reason to avoid US for tourism and i am glad i did. Since then i have discovered so many places where i DO feel welcome. And what pisses me of is all the us citizens commenting on slow immigration clearance elsewhere and not being treated with the better service they think they are entitled to as citizens of a superior nation.

  6. Wow, have only been thru there once in route to Qatar, but after hearing that, have no interest in seeing Abu Dhabi.

  7. i was there a day after you, last thursday on the LAX flight. Exact same experience. Lounge made us leave too early, lines were really long. It was an 8:50 departure and crew did not show up until 8:30. Boarded at 9:00am and stayed at the gate until 10:30 as the had to find the luggage of the people who could not clear customs.

    I think the whole thing is terrible and will avoid AUH until they figure this out…fir F class, i think they should escort at the last minute…

  8. I share your exact experience, in paid first class a month ago. I had a tight connection (two hours) and was at the lounge, not even allowed a meal as they said “Boarding already started, you must leave”… OK i left and when i got at the facility was told “Sorry … your bag hadn’t arrived you need to wait”

    I did wait half an hour, got inside to face the rudest U.S immigration officer ever !! Have been flying for 10 years – 3-4 times in an out of the U.S and never faced such rude immigration officers …

    Any way, one hour later, i arrived at the gate into the plane, only to .. wait for it, be delayed TWO more hours 🙁

    Sux

  9. Lucky
    I went through this a couple of times both before after it started
    I realize that for us (elites, global entry, premium class travel etc etc) it is a disaster

    Take me last year.
    First Class lounge till 45 min before flight – quick walk – go through security in the premium lane
    and then – arrive in DC (hungry as food ran out of course)
    there was a special van that took the 12 in F class (usually there were 4 or 5 at the most)
    to the immigrations area by a special door (while the first people mover was still filling up with bz class)
    Global Entry got you through that – and one was through in about 10 min
    The bags came off first usually 5 min later and 15 min from touchdown
    – one was outside looking for the limo – I was usually in my limo at 20 minutes

    You focus on the negatives at AUH. That is nothing to the loss of perks at IAD
    Let me tell you the negatives at WAS –
    I have to get my stuff and walk a bit more to the train –
    then go to Dulles Baggage Claim 7 or 8 and wait for my stuff.
    That takes a while and is a zoo

    The only people it helps – AND IT AMAZED ME! – are those without elite status going via JFK or IAD
    They are a lot happier that the crappy lines on landing are no more.
    EVERY SINGLE ONE I TALKED TO WAS HAPPY!
    So maybe we are out of touch with reality felt by the masses

    IAD is (a dump and a UA hub) not ideal for connections with EY partner AA or US
    BUT if you went to Chicago I think it is even better as connections are better located and you do not have to schlep from the international terminal to the domestic perhaps for EY!
    I am not sure of that but I assume that they now come to Terminal 3 after all this preclearance.

    I think (not positive) the main bulk of EY travel from US to AUH are those folks to India or SE Asia or Africa
    They are happier with PreClearance, even with late flights.
    Those are the main customers for EY, not some jackasses going on free travel in bz class or F class and writing about it
    Yes they have a bad transfer at AUH, but no worse than if they transferred in the US.
    The reason they run out of food I think is
    1
    They load light for extra long hauls to US without any reserve
    2
    They run out while waiting on the ground at AUH perhaps?

  10. Ha. Now the exact opposite of what they intend will happen. As with several people above, I read this and said to myself “Okay cool, if I go to the UAE I’ll fly into Abu Dhabi but definitely out of Dubai”

  11. Lucky, I flew AUH-LAX in J a few weeks ago and I can back you up on every single word you said. For the amount of resources being poured into a service like this, there is no way to justify the rudeness, inefficiency, and anti-consumer of this facility. Having said that, I’m going to have to think long and hard before spending my AA miles on another Etihad award ticket.

    I’m also curious to hear about your ground experience in LAX upon landing. I’m sure being the frequent traveler you are, you probably don’t check in luggage very often, but let me tell you from my experience that the BAGGAGE CLAIM EXPERIENCE IN LAX RIVALS THE HORRIFIC PRE-CLEARANCE FACILITY IN ABU DHABI. As we deplaned, there were Etihad ground-staff strategically placed all around the airport ushering Etihad passengers to the baggage claim area, as the baggage collection area is in a separate location from all the other traditional international travelers.

    The carousel used was probably a 50 foot strip coming out from one side of the wall and entering the other – something that typically serves perhaps a small CRJ plane on a regional flight. Having said that, Etihad operates a 777-200LR with passengers traveling with a tremendous amount of checked luggage. Needless to say, there was utter chaos at the baggage claim as over 200 people were trying to squeeze into a very small area of airport real estate and the frustration was palpable. Either I caught them on a bad day or this is a normal thing – in any case, I’m definitely not a fan of the Abu Dhabi pre-check system…

  12. btw
    Much as you like Qatar the airline in detail, the experience I had at DOH in the Premium Terminal was no better
    A lot of people waiting around and wasting time even without preclearance.

  13. Lucky – I can relate to what you wrote. I flew with my family (wife and a baby) via to ORD via AUH. All three of us are Global Entry participants. I can attest to the wait times, the hurdles, lack of guarding the premium queues, multiple check points to get to the GE kiosk. You were right we were also ‘grilled’ by the agent while checking our GE print outs. Very uncharacteristic.

    The whole point of the pre-clearance is to save time when you land but the reality is you are delayed by over an hour before take off and honestly its a breeze to use GE kiosks landing at any American Airports.

    I’d rather have my immigration done in my country (USA) than some third country (especially when its in the Middle East). Just in case something goes wrong at-least i know i’m in my country

  14. I am booked on AUH-LAX flight on Jan 3 and I really really hope by then, they are able to fix this mix mess to some extent.

  15. Have you used the US pre-clearance facility in Dublin? I used it a few weeks ago and while it was nothing as bad as this seems to be, I wasn’t terribly impressed. It took a solid hour, hour and a half to get through. Super long, slow moving lines, no line for first class passengers, absolutely grilled by the agent, etc. I’d be curious to hear how you compare the two.

  16. Everyone who had this experience should send a stern message to Etihad customer service so they know how customers feel about this.

  17. Is the use of the pre-clearance facility mandatory? Can’t you just elect to do your immigration on the US side?

  18. Lucky, off-topic but just some constructive criticism…you really don’t need half of the bolding and italics.

    As for Etihad’s CEO…well, he is going to toe the company line, regardless of what he feels. Unless he wants to be fired and deported…while I’m sure he has a lot of power in his day to day operations, at the end of the day, his pay check does come from the royal family. If they say the program is a success, then so will he.

  19. Thanks for the report. No flying Etihad to US for me until this is fixed. shower stop in FRA on way home looks the route. Might try the SFO to AUH flight sometime though. Will bring sandwiches for first class :).

  20. This really sucks and I do hope someone from EY reads your blog post, Lucky!

    I looked up the flights from AUH to the USA and out of the 5 daily flights they have to the USA, 4 of them are in the morning (all 4 flights departing between 8:50am and 11:00am) ***I can totally understand why the pre-clearance facility would be a mess at this time.

    However, the 5th daily flight, AUH-JFK, departs at 2:10am. I wonder if the pre-clearance experience is similar for this flight?

    Given EY plans to have flights to San Francisco and Dallas within the next few months, I do hope they fix ithis issue sooner than later.

    I do think ffi has a point that the majority of EY’s passengers from AUH to the USA tend to be transit passengers from India/Africa who are not US passport holders and would therefore have to queue and wait a long time in immigration upon arrival in the USA (which means this pre-clearance facility is great for them!) Then again, I would think AUH-JFK is a high density and high yielding flight for EY so they really should change the pre-clearance experience for its premium passengers (especially before EY flies its A380 from AUH-JFK!)

  21. Basically your rant is just due to poor choice of words of the ceo. Possibly he meant it was going better than expexted.
    Or as you learn in any MBA: not all problems are reported to the ceo. It might as well be that the top-management is reporting that the facility is running great. While line crew is miserable.

    I think you’re exaggerating a bit. It may be a problem, but your arguments are unfortunately not that constructive… Basically if he wouldn’t have said that it’s running great, you wouldn’t rant about it.

    I do however hope that they can fix their issues. Problems are problems… And that’s just mostly the fault of ridiculous USA security. Today flying out of brussels, i saw a complete clusterf* for the UA flight to IAD too. But here the airlines don’t have the choice, they’re obligated to perform an extra security check during boarding.

  22. There is no way that this facility can be successful in its present state. It is simple mathematics. Its capacity is incapable of dealing with the presentation profile of its userbase. Quite simply, it is unfit for purpose and exists purely as a publicity stunt for Etihad.

  23. I agree a 100% with this –

    “the majority of EY’s passengers from AUH to the USA …are not US passport holders and would therefore have to queue and wait a long time in immigration upon arrival in the USA (which means this pre-clearance facility is great for them!)”

    I am used to waiting 1-2 hours in immigration at every US airport. Now atleast I know I just have to claim by bags and can have someone pick me up at a reliable time after I land?

    Tell me how ironical it is when I or my parents fly LH F and then have to wait 2 hours in immigration at IAD because 6 flights landed right before mine, and am dead tired by the time I am walking out. Plus someone who came to pick me up has no idea when I will be done.

  24. Well First i can say all these extra scrutiny sre to blame on Americans who maybe because the flight is departing from Arab/Moslem country thinks they have to reinforce their check.
    Well to All Americans grumbling here i will tell them,you havent endure what all foreigners specially thise with moslem names or departing or were born from suspicious countries endure st smerican airport,rude,arrogant,unwelcoming,impolite immigration staff,so makes no diffetence to wait 2 hours at Abu Dhabi or sometimes 6 hours at US entry port,i ve been stopped many times despite my frequent travelling to US,my UK citizenship and residency changes nothing,each time been asked after all the questions and verifications to go and wait in vrowded room for hours doing nothng just waiting and after few hours been called and my passport stamped so Americans get a life and feel what others feel without complaining.

  25. @ andre — Not sure what hypocrisy there is. It’s a US facility and I’m calling them out and blaming them for it.

  26. @ Geoge — I have. Don’t love it, but not horrible either. Certainly nothing like the Abu Dhabi facility.

  27. @ wwk5d — I don’t think saying “we are still working out some kinks/evaluating the program” would get him fired/deported…

  28. @ SJ — Except you still have to wait for your bags on arrival. So if a flight is delayed by two hours and you have to wait another 45 minutes on arrival for your bag, that’s still better than a two hour process on arrival whereby you clear immigration and claim your bag.

  29. I flew out of AUH on a paid J ticket a few weeks ago; AUH-LAX. One pre-clearance experience was enough for me to say never again to EY.

  30. Wow,

    So you want Etihad and (UAE for that matter) to do well despite their strong anti homosexual agenda, and you being a practising homosexual…

    And if you want them to do well, maybe you should move there and actually fly them REVENUE instead of your profit losing award tickets. If you thought homosexual filtering was bad in the US JFK lounges, you haven’t met the morality police yet.

  31. @Ben. Really :/

    Has anyone used the “Pearl Assist” meet and assist service? For $60 promises expedited passage. But trying to find out if it would help with US pre-clearance problems. Even if it went to the head of the other (non TSA) lines, it might help?

  32. Lucky, the implications for someone who misses the flight because of delay through the pre-clearance are horrible. As soon as my wheelchair seated mother cleared immigration minutes before they were leaving without her, she had to drag herself (as the wheelchair staff was nowhere to be found at that crucial moment). If she had missed it, she WOULD HAVE TO WAIT 1 DAY IN THEIR SEATING AREA!! as the next flights leave next day and she cannot leave the immigration cleared area (technically she is in US).

    Etihad can make this system a game-changer (scraping it means going back to square one) as you have 16 hours of peaceful flight without the anxiety of impending immigration and customs as also the surety of catching your connecting flight. They need to insert the human element here by first understanding that there is a problem and secondly no one wants to be treated as a criminal going through immigration and customs

  33. Saying the facility is operating as well as it could suggests that nothing is being down to innovate it, which shows a complete disregard for the time and experience of everyone involved.

    should be

    Saying the facility is operating as well as it could suggests that nothing is being done to innovate it, which shows a complete disregard for the time and experience of everyone involved.

    Hi Ben,
    You can delete this and my posts correcting typos, saving your readers time reading them.
    You can send your email to me and I’ll send future typo correction suggestions directly.
    Best,
    Your reader John T

  34. I just had two connecting flights AUH-ORD and AUH-JFK last week and I totally agreed that it’s a complete mess on Etihad. I also got stuck in one Etihad checkpoint for one hour because they have to find your checked luggages and took pictures for US Pre-Clearance.

  35. Sticking with First class in Emirates for my trip in January now what I have done in the past
    Not going to ruin my trip with this horror show
    Thanks for the warning.
    We had considered Etihad as a top contender however after running out of food and the dog and pony show on the ground I’m definitely out! I can bring my own food on board but I cant stand disruption and delays to clear customs when there is a CF###
    Yikes what a mess apparently/Luckily we have fully refundable fares

  36. My whole family did the AUH pre-clearance in July and hated it. We were rushed to get through it: a minder carried one of my bags and we literally ran to the CBP, only to find huge lines and we waited over an hour at the gate for a late departure! I talked to a CBP officer who was on “temporary” assignment there in AUH and he was getting paid something like double or triple time to be there temporarily, but he still hated it and they kept involuntarily extending his time because they couldn’t find enough permanent people willing to move long-term.

    Plus the whole concept of pre-clearance has never made sense to me EXCEPT for those connecting to other domestic US flights. In the US, we normally have to wait long enough for bags anyway that that’s the holdup, not customs/immigration. But then again, I’m an over-entitled elite with GE that doesn’t have to stand with the huddled masses in CBP lines. But back to my main point, it’s insanely inefficient to have a little-used facility in AUH. Centralization allows full and efficient utilization of resources, including spare people for sick time, moving officers around between terminals to meet demand, specialized, purpose-built facilities that have been tried and tested and refined rather than slapped together. Plus, the US is majorly innovating with their immigration. Even regular US and Canadian citizens without GE can use electronic gates at Dallas now, for instance. I assume they’re rolling that out nation-wide.

  37. No one has suggested possible fixes. The best would be to do things like they do in Canada with the pre-clearance facilities. The Pre-clearance facility is essentially a full terminal after immigration with seating, restaurants and lounges. You should check in, clear US immigration, go through customs/security and then go to the lounge or the restaurant or whatever. If they did this, you wouldn’t have the leaving the lounge early problem and you would probably spread out the time that everyone is trying to go through immigration. You’d also have food and places to sit when there is a delay.

  38. @Joey
    AFAIK, The 2 AM flight to JFK does not get preclearance.

    @Tom
    That would be too efficient, not really something the ME does well by itself.
    Most of ME is run by westerner managers with Asian staff.

  39. Exactly a similar experience, delayed flight because of TSA, no announcement of the delay, had to literally go and make the gate manager make the announcement. If James Hogan thinks its a game changer, then of course it is, its giving away customers to other airlines

  40. Certainly does sound like a nightmare. But any flight to the US is a nightmare. You have stupid procedures at most foreign airports with flights to the USA. VIE has stupid procedures too (central area for “security check” of your bp and then nowhere to sit at the gate or no admittance to the gate area). PEK has stupid requirements as well including making you get a new bp at the gate and search of all bags on the jetway. FRA has their uniformed cops scouring the gate checking documents and making everyone go through secondary security screening where they empty your entire carryon bag. Etc.

  41. I think I’ve determined that I won’t be using any miles to redeem for awards on Etihad….:/ I really hope you can get in contact with someone from the airline. If they’re trying to remain one of the fastest growing airlines in the world, they can’t just bury their heads in the sand and pretend everything is ok. I wouldn’t stand for this kind of service, whether it was flying paid or on an award ticket.

    And @Ben(not Lucky), I guess you’re just fortunate there are no filters blocking people who are openly “practicing” douchebags. If you’re so down on “profit losing” award tickets, why are you on a blog whose primary purpose is to provide tips and tricks for redeeming miles for those award tickets? Oh right, I forgot. Because you’re a witless coward who is too much of a punk to be a jerk in real life because you know you’d get bitch slapped for being a homophobic asshole, so you use the anonymity of the internet to go online to take all of your severe inadequencies as a human being out on others because you’re that miserable and useless.

  42. It seems, perhaps, that Etihad’s preclearance has terrible “hurry up and wait”. They should be able to mitigate this for a subset of pax – e.g., premium pax. But they cannot do this for all when the plane typically will wait for the slowest passenger.

    It seems that the same issue exists at DUB, where one is a fool to leave the lounge for the hurry up and wait at preclearance, as EI is loathe to leave until all pax have cleared.

    I am in DC, and I HATE immigration at IAD, what with that awful mobile lounge just to get to immigration. But this sounds FAR worse.

  43. Hey Ben,

    For this story, I have to disagree partially on your argument. I am an international student, not a US Citizen, nor a green card holder. Since 2009, I arrived at seatac airport for about 5x with EVA Air, Chicago ORD with korean 1x, Charlotte with US Airways 1x, and Houston with SQ 1x. For us, the line normally always very longggggggggg, and it takes at least 90 minutes to pass the USCBP. If we transfer to local flight to smaller airport, we have at least spare 210 minuted to be safe, this is at least after they discontinue the random check. I believe you are not familiar with it, its a rule after 9/11 where they pick randomly people to be interview and investigated, normally a man, and it takes about 4 hours at least, can you imagine that? Thank God i never got randomly check. So after all, this custom preclearance in Abu Dhabi i will said is very attractive for international people who don’t hold US Passport nor green card. So I am guessing, James Hogan are not targeting people American. I fly from toronto with the same rules, and it always great for me, but still can’t compare to abu dhabi who dont provide any store, have a long delay, and no other facility. But still, i agree they can do much better, but pre clearance are very good for international, thats my point.

  44. No wonder Emirates Tim Clark’s been opposed to this whole idea from the beginning and not in favor of a similar facility at Dubai. It’s a logistical nightmare unless the entire infrastructure is built with such operations in mind from ground up, specially where most of the traffic is connecting and not originating there. Curious to see if the Dubai facility will actually go through after the debacle that is Abu Dhabi.

  45. @ernest – I was an international ex-student with entries @3x LAX, 1x PIT, 1x SFO, 1x EWR. I’ve never had anything that resulted in 4h of waiting time (although LAX certainly came close once). I too, had to clear extended questioning (although it didn’t take 4h). For most most airports other than LAX, I’ve been able to clear customs within 60-90 minutes. I think going via smaller airports where there are more flights using smaller planes (757s?) rather than say 777/744/A380s from Asian hubs might make a greater difference than preclearance for non Global-Entry users. In any case, you stand to benefit if you clear immigrations/customs quickly, compared to having to wait for the slowest person to clear AUH’s facilities before the flight leaves. I’ll defintely be at the airport 90-120 minutes before an international flight, so a 4 hour wait seems like a given.

    Funnily enough, Blaine/Peace Arch (land crossing) was probably the longest I got stuck at customs, but YVR’s preclearance facility had the fastest clearance time (30-45 min).

  46. @ffi — you’re right, I checked the EY website and there is no US Pre-clearance for the 2AM AUH-JFK flight (EY103).

    @Tom — I’ve never been to AUH but from the way this has been described thus far, some possible fixes that make sense to me:
    1) Hire more US Pre-Clearance employees.
    2) Add more seats, bottled water, food in the waiting areas. Add a small lounge as well for the premium passengers.
    3) Since 4 out of 5 EY flights to the USA leave between 8:50am-11am, EY should only have 1 or 2 flights at most to have US Pre-Clearance. These most likely should be destinations that are AA hubs like ORD and LAX since most of the people who benefit from pre-clearance are connecting passengers.
    ***Note that the upcoming DFW flight departs at 10:10am on Sun, Wed, and Fri starting in a few months. Let’s just say I would definitely NOT want to fly EY on those days! 😉

  47. @zhong liang.

    No, what I am saying about 4 hours was when people get randomly check, we called them special registration. This is the rules that everybody will go on separate line to be interview, I guess you were not part of it, and me as well, but some of my friends got into that stupid line. Thank God now they already stop this rules as they change the I-94 into online system. so I will say again, it takes about 90 minutes. It depends if there is another international airline that arrive earlier or not, if yes and many, you will expect to get 2 hours, if you are the first international airlines that arrive, 60 minutes is the average. Smaller airport that I mean is like CMH, they never have a plane that is bigger than A321 and 737. Mostly embraer 170/190, or even turboprop airplane.

  48. I agree with your sentiments – that its frustrating when a company is blind (or for the sake of media glazes over) to issues on their newfound idea. I get that they’ve spent millions of dollars on a project so it’s probably hard to accept why something won’t work given the cost. But to move forward a company should be aware and then address issues right away. The “pre-clearance” novelty has always been a forefront of airlines who want to boost their US routes. It’s good when done right (Air Canada as an example) but it could be disastrous when forethought isn’t applied.

  49. I flew AUH-LAX on July 27 2014. Pre-clearance was not as bad as Lucky’s experience or for that matter what other folks are saying here. We were through the line/security and at the agent’s desk in about 20 minutes, no special treatment in Economy class. The agent was quite nice and polite and we were through in about another 5 minutes. There was water and juice at the gate for us. Our flight did leave quite late, about 1 hour and 40 minutes or so but again that wasn’t too bad.

    Why I might still fly Etihad through AUH:
    1. AUH-LAX is the first flight and so the rush doesn’t seem to be that bad
    2. Upon landing in LAX, we were out in about 5 minutes, got our bags and were on our way home. Trying to land in LAX along with three other A380s and then going through the lines, luggage and really rude US Customs guys is not my cup of tea. I do not have Global Entry and we travel to Asia/Africa at least once a year and have gotten used to really crappy experience at LAX. My 4 year old drives us crazy through the lines and this time it was so much more pleasant.

    So yes, it is a bit crazy in AUH but it is crazier in LAX and I have US Passport and pretty much every other time they want to go through the bags and make us wait another 45 minutes and then let us out without
    a] confiscating anything or
    b] charging a fine for any item

    I would rather wait for a little bit longer in AUH than get harassed at LAX. This is my world view for three people flying in Economy and of course it is very different from someone flying First Class.

  50. @hr,

    I totally agree with you, flying on economy and first make a huge difference, because they let the first class passenger go out first, then business class, then economy. And once the economy arrive at the immigration line, they are already stand behind the business and first class passenger, haven’t count people from other planes that arrive couples minutes or hour earlier.

  51. We’ve had exactly the same experience. The preclearance facility has an unfixable flaw: the flight cannot depart until everyone clears customs, which means that anyone who has a hard time getting cleared through US customs (and for any Middle Eastern country that’s going to include a lot of people) is going to delay departure. Typically, at least one passenger does not even clear customs, which means that the plane must wait until that passenger’s baggage is removed. So, inevitably, either every flight will depart late, or Etihad will have to require people to be at customs about 4 hours before scheduled departure, and close the flight for people who arrive later. Both options are far worse for travelers who can clear customs quickly on arrival in the US.
    Preclearance may have sounded like a good idea in theory, but it’s a disaster in practice and should be scrapped.

  52. It does sound like the sensible solution would be to make a full-blown PreClearance section/wing/terminal that would feature all the typical airport airside facilities & amenities.

  53. Looks like big part of the problem is due to poor implementation of the program. Having worked as merchant marine I know customs pre clearance (for cargo) in Singapore has been a huge success for US bound ships.

    Looks like they’re trying the same system with poor results. Last year my Delta flight was delayed in Atlanta by 5 hours and all connecting flights were missed (for all passengers). On reaching Dubai, there was no one at the airport and all passengers had to wait 4-5 hours for someone to show up and issue alternate tickets. It was painful for everyone.

    On the other hand, immigration takes an hour or so for legal immigrants in US even at big airports, sometimes big airports are infact very slow if several big flights land at the same time. Last year, I was frustrated at Atlanta when I was standing in immigration line for over an hour with a crying 6 month old with most lines for US citizens / residents empty. They just wouldn’t listen to passengers and didn’t care.

    So US may be better but this issue of rude immigration officers, long line and indifferent attitude towards passengers is nothing new for visitors / legal immigrants to US.

  54. ouch.. sounds awful lucky, or should I say in this case, unlucky.

    Is the basic problem insufficient number of agents/kiosks for the number of passengers, or is it more teething problems given the newness of it all.

    In any case, it should be rectifiable and rectified, since a big selling point of the pre-clearance in the first place is to minimize total travel time and inconvenience. But it seems to be doing the opposite.

    One point, Lucky- you refer a number of times to wheelchair passengers using premium lanes. That is, at least in much of the sub continent and middle east, standard procedure. The number of wheelchair passengers is typically high, and it is more efficient to have them use the premium lanes so as to not choke up the main lanes, as otherwise boarding would be brought to a halt and the a/c would never leave on time.

    I’ve flown with my mother who uses a wheelchair for flights where there is more than minimal walking involved since she is arthritic, and 9 out of 10 times the staff wheel her through the premium security lanes and boarding lanes.

  55. I disagree with you , i traveled twice to IAD this year 2014 and found the facility and service is awesome. comparing it with long ques at US airports. this is much better.

  56. Despite one comment earlier I must recommend the Pre=clearance at Dublin [Ireland] where nobody bugs you to get to CBP. There is now a big lounge just after Immigration – there are about five departures to the US during the busy hour – sixteen in total during the day. I travel six or seven times a year through on this route [Rome – Dublin – San Francisco or New York] and the whole process has NEVER taken longer than 20 / 25 minutes.
    Even US Immigration officers smile here!

  57. It is always going to be like this in Abu Dhabi, so grow up and think about it.
    have flown many times from Shannon in Ireland.
    They have no problems recruiting US staff as they stroll in to work – the only risk for delay is that they have been exchanging talk for too long with Irish airport employees – so a really pleasant placement.
    In between fights you see US uniformed officials pleasantly chatting with local employees.
    Ad then they check an airplane full of low risk passenger sin under 30 minutes -and not casually – they’ll catch any unwelcome baggage etc.
    And of course if you have Global Entry you stroll through because you are so very unlikely to be a risk.

    However in the Middle East:
    1) Who would want to work there, especially in an American uniform?
    2) Potentially there are many passengers that are high risk.
    3) Even if you are are “Global Entry”, you still need to be checked, as you are potentially are a risk – after all you have been in the Middle East! That alone is a red flag, and demands a serious security operation to ask why? In all likelihood there is a good reason, business, so probably 99 out of a hundred Global entry passengers are honest and safe, but the fact that you went there means they have to ask – it is not Canada or Ireland.
    SO put simply, every single passenger has to be asked some questions in a way that is not necessary in the other pre-clearance locations, where the major risk is somebody planning and over-stay, but nobody planning an attack.

  58. This really sounds dreadful. And the extra security with no pre-check! Taking shoes out of a bag and dumping the contents of your laptop bag everywhere!

  59. My experience was a nightmare.

    I’m (Muslim) Pakistani, with a US passport (no GE), had a flight from Pakistan to AUH to ORD (and then to SFO).

    I was one of the few people whose checking took so long, that we missed the flight (and this is considering that they had already delayed the flight by a few hours).

    Etihad was actually quite nice about it; they got me on the next flight to SFO (my final destination), which was from AUH to Tokyo, and then American Airlines (I think) from Tokyo to SFO. Etihad got me a hotel to stay in, because it was morning by now, and the AUH-Tokyo flight was at night.

    What made it especially worse for me, is that I was feeling sick, and hadn’t slept the *entire* night before. This was because the AUH-ORD flight was in the very early morning, so my Pakistan to AUH flight was very late night, so I’d stayed up (unaware of the nightmare that awaited me).

    The worst part – other than surviving the entire ordeal while feeling exceedingly sick and tired – was probably the treatment of the agent(s). I was certainly no stranger to CBP agents and clearance; I’d been through it probably over a dozen times before. But I’ve possibly never met a ruder, more abusive person in my life than the one who did the ‘grilling’ this time. Perhaps this could be said of most of these ‘agents’, but that person really belonged to a mental institute. Some of his questions were so ludicrous, I had no idea what to say. “Why’re you staying at a hotel? Huh?” (Like I’m doing something wrong there.) There was really nothing I could say without making him feel even stupider and thus aggravating him further. (“Um… because otherwise I’d have to sleep on the street, and then I’d get hypothermia, and then I’d die… I’d want to ideally avoid that, you see… So yeah, hence hotel…”)

    It almost just felt like the whole thing was just a place for these individuals (the agents) to unleash their dark frustrations on real-life individuals, with little to inhibit them. And, let’s be honest; their attitude is classically exemplary of what we call “dehumanization” – and if it isn’t structural, then surely the lack of an inhibitory system against it is.

    The grilling was long. I was left in a solitary confinement like area from for some time as well on my own. Finally an older agent came around, who seemed to be somewhat more in charge of things perhaps, and though he completely ‘spoke American’, he had an Arabic name. He was relatively much nicer, finally. (Maybe Abu Dhabi had ensured to place an Arab-origin person in charge.) He did notice that I was visibly sick, and inquired, and got me some fruit juice in the meanwhile. His questions were just as stupid as the last guy’s though. They pretty much just seemed to be more curious about my personal life, than anything even remotely security- or terrorism-related. (Actually I’d encountered that before once, at CBP screening at ORD, by a female agent – but her attitude was extremely nice, and this time it’d already been really long and I was sick!)

    Then this guy left the room too and I was alone again for some time. It probably wasn’t that long, but it feels like it, because you’re suffering from a very unnerving anxiety about what exactly will happen to you, which, judging from the behavior towards you so far, seems like could be anything. Finally someone came along, as if they’d forgotten about me all along: “Oh yeah, you, you’re free to go, here’s the passport.” Whew… good to know, because I thought they were getting the rectal hydration tubes ready or something.

    When I got to SFO – I had to go through CBP again. That was *relatively* painless, as it usually is in the US, at least so far. But turned out my luggage hadn’t arrived. After a ton of calls back and forth, found out it was still in AUH, and it took me a week to get it. My relative in SFO told me had come in from AUH, even before the CBP had got set up there, and Etihad still had just lost his luggage altogether.

    Needless, not traveling AUH-US ever again. (Might not travel anything to US ever again for that matter, now that I’m back in PK – but that’s a different subject.) After complaining to Etihad, they gave me a ton of free miles, which was really nice of them, along with offer to compensate for damages due to delayed flight and luggage. So I *might* travel Etihad again for non-US, to avail all those miles, as they’re quite a lot. But I probably won’t, because it wouldn’t be worth it if they end up losing/misplacing the luggage again.

  60. Just for those seeking an update, I am sitting in the terminal and had almost word for word the same experience going through the customs facility, except luckily it seems only the one flight to the US is departing now (I’m on the 3am flight from AUH – JFK). TBD how late our flight will depart, but I can definitely say no real improvements have been made to the security and customs process.

  61. I travel between India and US 4 times a year and have gone through this since it’s inauguration!! I was on Ethiad’s inaugural flight from Dallas on Dec 4. I have taken the DFW–>IAD–>AUH—>DEL sector extensively.

    I am amazed at this feedback and matches EXACTLY what I would say. I just never got around to writing or blogging about it until a friend of mine forwarded this post. Here are my takeaways:

    – Ethiad’s first class seat is simply amazing. It gives very good privacy and comfortable to sleep. I am not a big food/wine guy so I generally tend not to eat on a plane. However, few times they had actually ran out of food in first class or simply had no vegetarian options.

    – Flights always were delayed by at least an hour! I have missed my connection at IAD on american because of the stupidity of per-clearance. I actually was totally unaware that these delays were due to per-clearance.

    – They have now 1 unified lounge for Business and First Class. Usually that lounge is overcrowded and sucks! They had a first class lounge but is under renovation for past 1 year!

    – Ethiad’s on board customer service is awful. Most of them remind me of American or United customer service. They should be taking a cue from Singapore or Cathay.

  62. I have flown from Karachi to Chicago on ETIHAD in October 2014 and March 2015.

    My experience is contrary to what people have shared here. I think most people who take time to write a feedback are unhappy customers due to bad experiences. I may be a minority, but i decided to take time to write my positive experience. I developed excessive anxiety prior to travelling after I read above stories; so I hopeafter reading my comments, anxiety prone people like me can chill a little!

    I arrived Abu Dhabi at 635 am. A bus took us to terminal 3. I went through security and proceeded to US preclearance security area. I was there at 7 AM. They kept my boarding pass and I was asked to wait in the waiting area as my baggage was not scanned/pictured yet. At 735 AM, they gave my boarding pass and allowed me to go through security. There were only three people in my line. After security, I was in the Immigration area. There was no line! I was directed immediately to a booth. The officer was not rude, neither was he friendly. After scanning passport and one or two routine questions, he took me to secondary screening area. I waited for about 10 minutes when my name was called. Another officer asked me a dozen but quick questions regarding how long was my stay, what cities did I visit, how much money i was carrying and my profession. Then he gave my passport back and i came up to the Chicago flight gate area. The time was 815am. The flight time was 930 AM, boarding started at 930AM, flight took off at 1030AM.

    In summary, I did not feel it was a bad experience. Infact, it was far more quicker than arriving at JFK after a 14 hours flight and stand in line for 1 hour at immigration. For me, it was a wonderful experience in October 2014 and again in March 2015.

    The negatives were , i wasnt able to use business class lounge, which i dont really care for, and that i was sent to secondary inspection area. But this can happen at US airport too.

  63. I came back from AUH on March 9. I truly enjoyed my in-flight experience with EY, but the ground service is terrible, probably worse ground service than UA in my opinion.

    While I got back to the US relatively on-time (by EY’s lackadaisical standard on the ground), my luggage didn’t make it back. I waited at the carousel for an hour until all the bags were out. EY could have posted it a note asking me to contact the ground staff; to which, BR, CI, CX, or NH oftentimes, so pax don’t wait endlessly for nothing. Nope, EY at AUH has 16 hours to let the destination airport know that the luggage didn’t make it, but EY didn’t. Cynically, I start to wonder if James Hogan has alternative motive by opting out of SkyTrax.

    Anyways, my luggage is still being held by CBP according to EY. And there is no update on when I can expect my luggage. I wonder if CBP really held my luggage, or if EY lost it.

  64. Arrived in Abu Dhabi from Bangalore at 7 am May 13th. Had an Etihad flight to JFK with a 1050 departure time. Had to spend almost the entire time after arrival in a pre clearance line. Totally chaotic, and was in panic thinking I would miss my flight while in the preclearance line. Finally made it 20 minutes before departure time, but then got stuck on the runway for an additional 1 hour because other passengers were still stuck in preclearance. So ended up arriving at JFK an hour late. I think customs and immigration at JFK is much more efficient. I think folks should have the option of skipping the preclearance and opting for customs and immigration at JFK…

  65. Could any of the Etihad experience have to do with the bottom of the barrel wages and non-union, near servitude working conditions their employees must endure?

  66. I just went through Abu Dhabi on Ethihad from ORD and the experience in abu dhabi was far more pleasant than ORD. This was 7 weeks ago. Everything was fast and organized. I’m on my second trip now we’ll see how this one goes. But the last one was excellent in terms of security and time. I was not kicked out of the lounge or even asked to leave. I’ll report back if this one goes bad… otherwise assume it went well…

  67. @David, you said you “through Abu Dhabi on Ethihad from ORD”, so you’re talking about arrivals into or transfer through AUH, not departure from there to the U.S.? I am not sure how arrivals or transfer experience in AUH relates to U.S. pre-clearance there.

  68. Recently I flew via AUX to Chicago along with my wife and 2 little kids. We have been using international flights for several years but this was our first via Abu Dhabi. Worst experience from beginning to end. Never ever again via Abu Dhabi. I am willing to wait in long queue in U.S. airports for immigration clearance.

  69. is it compulsory to get the pre-clearance done at AUH? or can i just do it in Dallas when I land?

  70. @vanshika, yes, it is compulsory (that’s the only way it could work, otherwise someone could decline pre-clearance who is carrying carry customs-prohibited or customs-limited items, then once on board pass them to someone who was pre-cleared).

  71. Hey Lucky – here’s an AUH Pre-clearance status update. I am right now sitting at Gate 60, waiting to board my flight back to ORD. Pre-clearance was a breeze. From the time we packed up our stuff in the Al Dhabi Lounge to Gate 60, we clocked it at 28 minutes. The majority of that time was walking all the way from Terminal 1 over to Terminal 3.

    Step 1: The first security checkpoint was almost laughably fast – so fast that my bag went through the conveyer whilst the officer chatted it up over his shoulder, barely glancing at the scan. Shoes and belt stay on, bag stays in one piece. Total time: 10 seconds.

    Step 2: Al Dhabi Lounge…not as great as LoungeBuddy imagines it (“Luxe” is really stretching it – I would say Basic+). Some of the food was ok and the champagne was free. If you get to AUH early, it’s worth having a place to sit, eat/drink, and relax – but it’s not on the “must do” list in terms of lounges. If Al Dhabi is Luxe, I can only imagine what Centurion Lounges would be… Epic? The Al Dhabi Lounge is not conveniently located for those departing from Terminal 3, but again, if you have time to waste, might as well check it out. Walking time: 5-10 minutes.

    Step 3: Second security checkpoint – this was less painful as you experienced, Lucky. Yes, they had me take out my laptop and turn it on. But that was it, aside from the belt-and-shoes affair. They were courteous and reminded asked politely if I might turn on my laptop. Having a MacBook Air in sleep mode helps. Total time: 1-2 minutes.

    Step 4: Global Entry. Ok, so this isn’t as clearly marked as it should be. It’s on the right side of the room (don’t be tempted by the other machines on the left side! They look pretty – but they’ll lead you astray!). After answering all the questions, my travel buddy and I got dumped into the Wheelchair line. Thankfully, since there were few people in queue, the assistant quickly ushered us to the front of the regular line. The CBP Officer just came on-shift and asked a few friendly questions like, “What were you doing here? It’s kind of boring…” “Are you a Bears fan?” and “Oh, did you get the really cheap fare here, too?” Overall, very easy. Total time: 8-10 minutes (most spent with the Global Entry machine).

    My tips:
    – Don’t think your ORD-AUH (terrible) experience is going to be replicated. At ORD, we waited at check-in for over 45 minutes. It was pure chaos. The same agents at check-in had to rush over to open the gate – which was equally a zoo. AUH, on the other hand, is a dedicated, all-hands-on Etihad machine. There was no wait at check-in, no problems with baggage, and no issues (so far) at the gate.
    -The JFK flight leaves 20-40 minutes before ORD. Let them get to security first…enjoy your lounge time.
    – Tickets now have an absurdly early “fake” boarding time and Etihad stresses you get there well before the gate opens. Ignore it. Our gate is supposed to open at 2:25am. It’s 3:12am right now, gate is still closed, and we have gate agents just staring off into bliss.
    – We left for Pre-clearance at 2am. We seriously could have left at 3am and made it here fine.
    – There is now a “grab&fly” food…store?…at the US gates. I just walked by and saw the most sterile donuts I have ever seen. Pass.

  72. My partner and I went through a couple weeks ago for the LAX flight, and our experience was a little different from @Joe’s, possibly because we were in F.

    I had to take my laptop out at the first screening, but not the liquids. The main lounge, before pre-clearance, was massively overcrowded and the Wi-Fi unusably slow. The BP had the gate closing time printed on it, and the staff all assumed we wanted to board last. It took some work to get them to understand that we wanted to board first, and to find out what time boarding was likely to start rather than end.

    We found the GE kiosks at pre-clearance, got our receipts, and the lane closest to the kiosks was the one for us to use. No chit-chat, but fast.

    Pre-clearance security was a bit chaotic, and as usual the lines were clogged with people who had no idea they needed to empty their pockets of phones, keys, etc. I not only needed to take out my laptop and liquids, but I was told to open my laptop, make sure it was on, and place it, open, on the belt. Very weird.

    At the boarding gate there was a separate roped-off section for F and J, and we were boarded first.

  73. I just went through this and it was painful. The airport itself was total chaos. The first security area created such a backup that passengers were packed like sardines in the hallways… never seen this at any airport before. In addition the walkways are narrow throughout the airport and cannot handle the amount of passenger traffic!

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