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Airline News: More Preclearance; Less Fare Transparency

The first of the week’s top stories comes from the Department of Homeland Security. It announced it wants to set up Customs and Border preclearance facilities at 10 new airports: Brussels, Punta Cana, Tokyo/Narita, Amsterdam/Schiphol, Oslo, Madrid/Barajas, Stockholm/Arlanda, Istanbul/Ataturk, London/Heathrow and Manchester. The new preclearance facilities would provide the same services as those longstanding units at major Canadian, island and Irish airports. When returning to the U.S., you would go through the immigration and customs processing at your departure airport, so, in effect, once through the system, you would already be in the United States. When your flight arrives at a U.S. airport, you arrive as a domestic passenger, free to pick up your baggage and go on your way without further fuss.

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As a traveler, preclearance offers you two potential benefits:

  • You go through the red tape at your departure airport, where you typically have to arrive early anyhow, rather than face long lines after arrival at a busy gateway airport.
  • Preclearance allows nonstop international flights to any airport in the U.S., including the many that cannot now accommodate them.

Initially, therefore, preclearance would seem a “win-win” situation. But some industry pundits question the benefit. First, they note, the relatively new Global Entry program provides fast-track processing on arrival, so preclearance wouldn’t benefit travelers who paid for Global Entry. And Global Entry wouldn’t help much at departure airports. Next, they point out that with preclearance, airlines might demand you be at the departure airport even earlier than at present. And third, they note that once through preclearance, you’re stuffed into a confined area with no access to the shops and lounges typically available in the departure areas of large international airports. These concerns are real.

An additional complication is how the international airports would actually implement the program. At Heathrow, for example, flights to the U.S. depart from four of the five separated terminals. Would Heathrow establish a special U.S. departure section in a single terminal, or would the U.S. have to establish four separate preclearance stations? I’ve seen no detail yet.

Despite these questions, chances are that at least some of those 10 airports will have preclearance within two to three years. Let’s hope that they solve the negatives.

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The other big news this week is that Lufthansa announced that on September 1 it will start adding a “surcharge” of $18 to any ticket bought through any sales channel that uses a global distribution system (GDS), including the big online travel agencies (OTA) such as Expedia or bricks-and-mortar retail agencies. The new policy also applies to the three other airlines Lufthansa controls: Austrian, Brussels,and Swiss.
First, Delta takes its information off of some search sites, now Lufthansa moves against all the GDS-dependent systems. As far as I can tell, these are not cost issues. Instead, airlines basically don’t like and don’t want fare transparency. They don’t want you comparing fares; they want you to come to their own websites.

I wouldn’t be surprised to see this issue either resolved or at least whittled away over coming months. And I suspect that the big OTAs will figure out how to bypass the GDS. But, overall, finding your best deal will get tougher, not easier.

I can’t go through the week’s news without commenting on another item. Alitalia, rescued from financial near-disaster by Etihad, announced a big new “re-branding” with lots of florid language and typical Italian flare and blather about Italian design. The actual change? A new paint scheme on its planes. Honestly, where do these airline execs get the idea that anyone cares about their paint schemes? We get nothing about a better product in economy class; instead, we get “classic Italian style projected into the future with a modern, fresh feel.” Feh! “BS Parmagiano” may have Italian flair, but it’s still bunk.

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Ed Perkins on Travel is copyright (c) 2015 Tribune Media Services, Inc.

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