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Why Preclearance at Abu Dhabi Is So Controversial

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) announced a plan to establish preclearance for travelers to the U.S. from Abu Dhabi International Airport. Although preclearance is a great for any traveler, lots of folks in the U.S. are questioning the choice of Abu Dhabi.

The idea of preclearance is to make life easier for travelers who are either returning to the U.S. or visiting America on a flight from a foreign country. At a preclearance airport, customs and border patrol officers process and admit travelers into the U.S. just before they board their flights rather than after the flights arrive in the U.S. Preclearance is available at eight large Canadian airports, the Vancouver rail station and its cruise port, four nearby island airports, and Dublin and Shannon in Ireland.

Why Abu Dhabi? One very simple and basic reason: Abu Dhabi promises to foot the entire bill. Apparently, the DHS rationale is, “If it’s good for travelers and someone else pays, why not?”

Why not, indeed? The opponents of Abu Dhabi make several claims.

Opponents argue that the DHS should focus on its problems in the U.S. before going outside the country. The needs for preclearance are much greater at other airports. Traffic from Abu Dhabi is minuscule compared with traffic on other international routes. Further, the only airline flying directly from Abu Dhabi to the U.S. is Etihad, so an Abu Dhabi facility would benefit only that one airline—and a foreign airline, at that.

These are all valid points. But my take is that we should really focus on adding more preclearance where it would benefit the most travelers. And we don’t have to look far for ideal candidates. An immediate need is at Toronto’s lakefront Billy Bishop Airport, serving transborder flights on Porter. Apparently, the hold up here is Canadian police funding rather than heel-dragging by the U.S. The big European hub airports—London/Heathrow, Paris/De Gaulle, Frankfurt, Amsterdam—send millions of travelers to the U.S. every year. Ditto the big Asian hubs. Terminal layouts, especially at Heathrow and De Gaulle, would require some extensive rearrangements.

No doubt Abu Dhabi’s motive is to improve Etihad’s competitive position with other Gulf-based airlines, especially ultra-aggressive Emirates. Even if the move is self-serving, however, at least a few travelers will benefit.

But the arguments against Abu Dhabi also have traction, and the list of opponents is impressive. If you want to express your views, log onto Draw the Line Here and have your say.

Meanwhile, if the Abu Dhabi preclearance plan does go ahead, it will certainly be your best option as a transfer point in the Middle East. Although only Etihad flies from Abu Dhabi to the U.S., American Airlines code shares on Etihad’s flights to Chicago, New York, and Washington.

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