More US Pre-Clearance Facilities Coming?

There are already quite a few airports which have US Pre-Clearance facilities. For those of you not familiar with them, it basically means that US Customs Border Protection officers are stationed at an airport outside the US, so you clear customs and immigration before boarding your US bound flight. That means you land in the US as a domestic passenger. In theory that sounds great.

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And it looks like the idea is so great, that the US is looking to expand on it by adding five more Pre-Clearance facilities in Europe. Via Air Transport World:

The US government is understood to be seeking pre-clearance facilities in the UK and other European countries for travelers to the US.

UK media reports cited documents seen by journalists in which the US had asked for such facilities to be installed in five European nations. US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officers would be stationed overseas to question transatlantic travelers before they boarded US-bound aircraft.

As some of you probably know, earlier in the year a US Pre-Clearance facility was added in Abu Dhabi. It’s an absolute freaking disaster, and flights from Abu Dhabi to the US are delayed an average of two hours. But that’s not the story you get when you talk to Etihad Airways’ CEO, who claim that the facility couldn’t be operating any more smoothly. As a matter of fact, they’re so pleased with it that Dubai Airport is looking at adding a similar facility, despite Emirates’ strong opposition.

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I’ve bashed Abu Dhabi Airport enough over their Pre-Clearance facility (okay, who am I kidding, I haven’t — that’s not possible), so let me try and be constructive here.

Selfishly I don’t want to see Pre-Clearance facilities anywhere, because I have Global Entry. For me the customs and immigration process on arrival takes minutes. But I also realize that’s not the case for the average passenger, where immigration on arrival in the US can be a nightmare.

Under which circumstances can a Pre-Clearance facility make sense? After all, they operate them in Canada and Ireland, among other places, and they’re pleasant enough.

I figured I’d share traits of an airport which in my opinion would be a good candidate for this facility:

  • An airport without many connecting passengers. When you have a lot of connecting passengers the facility only gets more complicated, as you’ll have delayed inbound aircraft, meaning many passengers will be running late. And since Etihad seems to wait for every last passenger to make it to the plane, that doesn’t help (they probably do that because many passengers connecting would need a UAE visa, but don’t have one).
  • An airport without highly concentrated flights. The problem with Etihad’s facility in Abu Dhabi is that they have 1,500 passengers leaving within two hours of one another. It’s impossible to efficiently process 1,500+ people through a facility designed maybe for a couple of hundred people.
  • An airport in a country with a US visa waiver program. If a majority of your passengers are “origin & destination” and live in a country which is eligible for the US Visa Waiver Program, the process is going to simpler. Period. Contrast that to Abu Dhabi, where most passengers are connecting from countries where immigration formalities are more complicated (lots of people on tourist or work visas for the US, etc.), and it does add time to the process.

As much as I’m opposed to these facilities based on my own interests, I can see the value of them if the above conditions are met. Manchester? Sure, I can see the value. London Heathrow? No way. Stuttgart? Yup. Frankfurt? Hell-to-the-naw.

What do you think? Is there value to these US Pre-Clearance facilities, and if so, under which circumstances do they make sense?

 

Comments

  1. I have Global Reentry too and don’t see a big advantage. But i will say when it is done well, like in Dublin, it is a nice way to do it!

  2. I’d be more accepting of it if my global entry would help me rush through the pre-clearance facility. I’ve been through the one in Dublin, and while it wasn’t awful, it did require me to get to the airport somewhat earlier than I otherwise would have. I don’t really see the point though. Whether you go through everything before or after the flight, doesn’t seem to be an advantage. Instead of doing the pre-clearance, I think they should just spend their resources making the clearance on arrival more efficient.

  3. I must say, with all do respect, that I wish that EU would just have the same procedures for the US citizens in place that we, EU citizens have to endure at US airports. Then maybe you would finally understand the problem. Last time, although arriving in LH F class, I waited over one hour in looooooong line at IAD… of course, my baggage was there in 5 minutes, but in vain…

    Yes, it has a lot of sense for EU citizens to have pre-clearance at EU ariports… this could potentially save lots of time and above all, energy at US airports…

  4. I agree with all the points you raised. Perhaps that’s why the pre-clearance facilities in Canada and Ireland have been successful compared to Abu Dhabi?
    Regardless, my main concern is security above all else. I’ve heard stories how US customs/immigration can detain passengers for more than 4 hours upon arrival in the USA for questioning/search, etc., would this be possible at a pre-clearance facility?

  5. My current visa status requires me to undergo mandatory secondary screening every time I re-enter the (for about six months.) It takes me AT LEAST two hours to clear immigration in a screening room. When I enter Australia, by contrast, I use the auto-kiosk and it takes under 30 seconds. Pre-clearance effectively requires the entire plane to take as long as I do at my very worst.

    If I’m running late for my US-bound flight and get to the (pre-clearance) airport 45 minutes before departure, then every other passenger will have to wait for over an hour while I get processed. Why? Why make every single passenger wait as long as to be processed as the most complicated passenger?

    Sheer madness.

  6. Hi Ben,

    Am I right to understand that your gripe is having to go through pre-clearance early then having to linger around the gate before boarding?

    So if they had a lounge after pre-clearance and we allowed for that 2h delay in departure (in our minds) then it would all be fine?

  7. Isn’t it likely that part of the reason why CPB wants this is to screen people out before they land on US soil? That way they don’t have to deal with shipping some one back to their origin if they aren’t going to let them into the country.

    I’ve only ever been through pre-clearance in Canada where it is very smooth even before I had GE.

    I do agree that we don’t have very welcoming immigration procedures at our airports. I always feel bad for the people stuck in the non-citizen line. Even the US line at IAD was really awful for a long time until they rebuilt the arrivals area. But even then they don’t always have the correct staffing levels which means long waits.

  8. @ TheRealBabushka — Well, no. I would be fine with it if they had a lounge after security AND left on-time. But I wouldn’t be fine if the flight consistently leaves two hours late and/or they pad the schedule by an additional two hours. That’s a lot of lost productivity/time.

  9. @ Joey — Ultimately it’s secondary screening that in part leads to the huge delays we see at Abu Dhabi Airport, as far as I know.

  10. For the 9½ years that I entered the US as an H1B visa holder I endured some of the most stressful entries to the US time and time again. In addition to the often 2-hours-or-more wait times in the US one is often met with some of the most perversely rude and abusive border patrol agents, who knowing that they have full authority over the arriving foreigners, proceed to satisfy their need to “be an asshole” over people who by virtue of having no rights whatsoever on arrival can do nothing but take the abuse with their heads bowed down. I have not only received this special “welcome to america package” but I have also witnessed it done to many others. Every time I had to enter the US I was under an unnecessary amount of stress, mostly wondering if I’d be let in at all despite having every document in order and no reason to fear other than knowing that I’d be subject to the whims of a CBP officer. The stress was so bad that in the later years before I became a resident I often opted to fly through Ireland, Canada, Aruba and the Bahamas just because by virtue of being in a foreign land, the most a CBP officer can do is to deny you entry and not run the risk of being one of those people subjected to the horror detention/deportation stories that many foreigners have experienced. Having preclearance abroad is far more convenient for travelers than to run into an issue once you have landed on US soil. So perhaps is not very convenient for American citizens, but for the millions of visitors to the US it certainly makes things better.

  11. Preclearance anywhere other than Canada is a poor idea. Take for example, Manchester – what sort of investment would CBP have to make in establishing and maintaining preclearance there? Will there inevitably be periods of great demand foollowed by CBP officers sitting around doing nothing? And, once in the post cleared sterile area, what facilities should a passenger expect? That area is, under a legal fiction, the United States, and anything, even a bottle of water would theoretically have to clear customs to get into the sterile area as much as any passenger need to. This is workable at large, NAFTA protected stations like YYZ, YUL, and YVR. And CBP’s cost of maintaining those stations is likely justified given the numbers of passengers involved and the fact that AC serves small US markets where CBP may not want to invest.

    Rather than developing more preclearance facilities, whether at Manchester, Stuggart or wherever, I’d generally prefer to see CBP use its resources to improve domestic stations.

  12. Just one more thing – preclearance is most justified in airports, such as YYZ, where outbound flights go to US desitinations which do not have meaningful CBP presences.

  13. I agree with a lot if comments here and I’m not a big fan if preclearance.

    However, as to cost, DHS is able to recoup the cost if these facilities, up to 80 percent. So, while I’d rather have that money used on arrival facilities (or encouraging more Global Entry use), I don’t think that’s the choice we’re presented with.

  14. Lucky I have Global Entry also, but I just got my NEXUS card. They told me that my Global Entry was no longer valid and that i should only use my NEXUS. I remember another post where you said that you had NEXUS. So – are you using the NEXUS card when you say that you have “Global Entry?”

  15. @Bill – Preclearance does not stop the possibility of abuse by overzealous CBP (or INS as it was back then) agents. I have personal experience of illegal detention, physical abuse and forced confessions at the hands of US Government agents at a preclearance center in Canada. If anything, it creates more of a legal limbo for third-country aliens.

  16. I agree that Pre-clearance is a nice idea in theory that in practicality helps virtually nobody. I can see its usefulness in Canada, where there are flights coming in to some very small US airports. This isn’t true out of Europe or Abu Dhabi (or DXB, etc.). Pre-clearance messes with connections, delays US-bound flights, and forces passengers into a crappy, isolated section of the airport with nothing to do. It does not need to be expanded.

  17. I’m writing this from the YYZ MLL. I just went through pre-clearance here. There were more GE kiosks here than any US airport! I was through CPB and security in under five minutes.

  18. I suspect the reason that Homeland Security wants more pre-clearance facilities has less to do with easing security inspections and more to do with applying US security procedures on more US bound flights BEFORE they get up in the air. Being able to screen more of the international flights bound for the US allows Homeland Security more control–and concomitantly more security in knowing that the incoming international flights won’t be used for any nefarious purposes.

    Pre-clearance is all about reducing the threat to the USA of international flights being used for terrorist purposes. It has nothing to do with easing security screening.

    IMO, pre-clearance would be a better idea if (1) Global Entry was recognized and applied to pre-clearance facilities abroad, (2) pre-clearance facilities were better chosen, along some of the lines in the above article, (3) pre-clearance facilities were better manned with US Customs officials in order to expedite the security screening process, (4) pre-clearance facilities recognized US citizens in a better, more efficient manner, expediting their security screening the most, and (5) pre-clearance facilities were stationed at the airports posing the most likely entry threats to US security. (The last is one of the reasons why I believe all of the Gulf airports offering nonstop flights to the USA are being targeted for pre-clearance, including Abu Dhabi, Dubai, and Doha. I suspect Istanbul, Cairo, Lagos, and Addis Ababa will be targeted, too.)

    The major European airport hubs are being targeted for pre-clearance by simple virtue of the number of their US-bound flights. Providing pre-clearance at these airports assures Homeland Security that the bulk of international flights heading into airspace have already been secured and pose much less threat to the US than without such clearance. Such facilities also provide the mechanism by which US authorities have to rely less on foreign security services to ensure the security of US bound flights.

    I actually think pre-clearance is a great way to better ensure the security of US airspace for the investment made. I agree, however, that its execution seems to be poor. Once Homeland Security gets its act together and streamlines the process for screening at pre-clearance airports (perhaps by forcing flights to depart at more staggered times or by reducing the number of permitted flights in a certain time threshold or by increasing its personnel at the various facilities or a combination thereof), I actually think the air travel issue will be one of much less concern to US security needs.

  19. Canada supports Global Entry in Toronto. Only problem is that it doesn’t give you any priority for security screening (ie no Pre-TSA). Only Nexus or American Express Platinum card (or AC elite) does.

  20. Here’s a crazy idea; rather than expand pre-clearance, why not improve the efficiency of the immigration process. The US is certainly not alone in having painfully slow immigration but is alone in trying to offshore the process.

    Australia has a similar entry process to the US but it has recently got a lot better. Australia has effectively granted global entry to biometric passport holders of certain countries, an expanding list, but US, UK, NZ, Singapore and Ireland are the current ones. You answer the immigration questions on a touch screen then go through the gate where your biometric data are checked. I see no reason why the US couldn’t do the same for US nationals, visa waiver holders and visa holders with biometric passports. The data is there, very hard to counterfeit, and to an internationally agreed standard.

    Also as far as keeping out undesirables, airlines won’t board people without a valid visa or waiver, there is the no-fly list, there are the intelligence and security services. This is just security theatre writ large.

  21. I totally agree with Bill!

    Screen everyone BEFORE they get onto an aircraft bound for the US. Hopefully they would weed out anyone seeking mischief. I would rather have drama prior to takeoff than have it after the aircraft was over the middle of the ocean.

  22. Speaking of Australia, it would be a good candidate for pre-clearance at airports. A visa waiver country, with few international connecting flights and arriving at LAX as a domestic passenger after a 15 hour flight would be a great benefit. I cannot see any airline flying across the pacific being keen to shoulder 80% of the cost however, if this is the requirement. Australia should have tried to negotiate a bit harder when they opened up smartgate to US biometric passports.

  23. Agree with Ed’s comment.

    Why is the immigration process in the US so long & painful?
    In every other country I have visited, including Indonesia with VOA, it takes less time to enter than in the US.
    I am US perm resident with GE now but had to go through the long lines @ JFK during 5 years while on a work visa.

  24. @FormalHall The cost doesn’t have to be borne by the airline. In the case of Abu Dhabi, the government pays for it (which is essentially the same thing since it’s a state-owned airline, I think). And they didnt have to pay, it was just the incentive to get the facility opened.

    There was some legislation in Congress to get the facility closed down but it was softened before passage to simply set standards that the Homeland Security Department must meet in establishing future U.S. customs preclearance facilities in other nations.

  25. Pre-Clearance any where other than Canada and perhaps some sun destinations are really unwarranted for. They should just use those staff domestically to help alleviate the congestion at immigration lines here rather than spreading them thin every where else in the world. If Abu Dhabi didnt bear nearly the entire cost of having a preclearance facility, congress wouldnt have approved of it. I really hope congress doesnt commit to any more of them unnecessarily. Id be hard pressed to see many EU airlines vying for it at their home airports if they are the ones that would have to bear the cost of these facilities rather than the US Government.

  26. I totally agree with some of the above statements. Stop investing money in rather useless preclearance facilities and instead invest the money in a smoother immigration process in the US.

    I don´t have Global Entry but have to travel to the US at least 3 or 4 times a year. I´ve had everything – from immigration in 4 minutes to 4 hours, including a line of literally hundreds of people including crying children, barking officers, no restrooms, heat and everything else you´d expect in a drama-documentary.

    IMHO it should be in the interest of any international US-Airline to put some money in that pot too – as they have to deal with (lucky guess) some thousends of missed connecting flight every day. Actually the whole immigration process “lesves more than something to be desired” – but that´s nothing what could´nt be solved with some good will and some money.

  27. Lucky, “Dubai Airport is looking at adding a similar facility, despite Emirates’ strong opposition.”

    Absolutely nothing happens at DXB or DWC without Emirates consent/agreement.

  28. Except Manchester would never make sense as there are only a couple of daily flights to the US … kind of the same problem as AUH. LHR *could* make sense because there are so many US flights that they could operate a scale facility, just like YYZ and YUL do, with full staffing throughout the day, which could spread out the demand for passengers. The size of the demand at a place like LHR T5 could also easily allow for a full suite of lounges after preclearance, again as is done in Canada, easing some of the problems of AUH.

    That said, the bigger problem with LHR is the multiple terminals — would you have preclearance at every terminal? Just T5? While BA could have both US and non-US international lounges, it would be much harder for VS to do so in a high-quality way.

  29. If there’s one transatlantic hub they should try preclearance at it should be Keflavik Airport (KEF) in Iceland.

    The demographic’s are a bit different. If you connect at KEF, odds are very high its EU-KEF-USA or USA-KEF-EU. It could probably be very efficient since most passengers are having the same travel patterns.

    Also – I’m surprised Cancun did not add pre-clearance when they built the new terminal a few years back though I believe that politics (ex:immigration and Mexican violence misconceptions) would blow it out of proportion.

  30. @KEF I would hate to fly from Europe, get off the plane in KEF, get my bag, clear security again, clear immigration and customs. Might as well wait to the US.

  31. I fully agree with you. This pre clearance is a disaster. My in laws got stuck in Abu Dhabi and missed their connecting flight to the US. And they had to wait for 19 hours and its really a bad experience.

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