Abu Dhabi Launches US Immigration Preclearance, Qatar Next?

Abu Dhabi Airport Terminal 3 launched US immigration preclearance in late January, allowing passengers on nonstop flights to the US to be processed through US immigration prior to departure. Currently Etihad serves New York, Washington and Chicago from Abu Dhabi. Upon arrival in the US, passengers deplane as if arriving from a domestic flight and can smoothly head to their connections. Abu Dhabi joins 15 preclearance locations in Canada, Bahamas, Bermuda, Aruba and Ireland.

Abu Dhabi Airport

Abu Dhabi Airport, photo by Michael Coghlan

Sometimes Preclearance works well (Dublin), sometimes not (Montreal), but irrespective it puts immigration procedures prior to the flight so that travelers can eschew huge connection buffers and missed connections dealing with immigration upon arrival. My personal rule in international travel is to always connect anywhere but the US so my US port of first arrival is my final destination.

Preclearance is distinct from Trusted Traveler Programs like Global Entry. Though Global Entry is at some preclearance locations , it is not at Abu Dhabi (see Global Entry locations).

There has been some controversy, drummed up by the anti-competitive instincts of US airlines, over the CBP’s decision to implement Preclearance at Abu Dhabi. Etihad is footing 85% of the operational cost. I do not know the legal and security intracacies of the arguments. These are US citizen CBP agents screening all passengers and it seems sensible from a security and immigration perspective to screen passengers before they show up in the US.

The WSJ reports that Qatar’s new airport, scheduled to open later in 2014, is the next to apply for preclearance.

Update: Ajay from Live from a Lounge, in the comments below notes that Dubai may be next. There have been numerous media reports about Dubai, however none that I have seen confirm that it has formally applied or if there is a specific timetable.

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  • Dubai is next…

  • @Ajay – I should have included that in the article, though I have not seen any articles confirming that Dubai has formally applied or if there is a timetable more specific than “in the next year.” Qatar by the WSJ article has actually applied, though not yet approved. Do you know if Dubai has actually applied?

  • Points, Miles & Martinis

    I wonder what goes into the decision process of making preclearence locations. Do you think we would ever see LHR become one?

  • @Points, Miles & Martinis – seems a mix of pride, money and logistics. In LHR’s case I can imagine all being an issue. This works best when all US-bound flights can be funneled through one terminal which is not how LHR is set up, though LHR has so much volume it seems conceivable that Delta/Virgin Atlantic could pay for one and AA/BA pay for another. Would be a big competitive advantage for whoever could do it.

  • Kris

    “There has been some controversy, drummed up by the anti-competitive instincts of US airlines, over the TSA’s decision to implement Preclearance at Abu Dhabi.”

    Etihad is footing 85% of the bill, so what? The US, which is in dire need of more CBP capacity in the US, still pays for 15%. And it’s not as though Etihad is just the biggest carrier using it, they are the only one, so the CBP is dumping money in to a facility that basically no US citizens use and no US airlines can use.
    It is the decision to have the pre clearance facility in AUH that is anticompetitive. The government is giving one company an advantage that they don’t give other companies.

    The TSA doesn’t run, nor do they have any involvement in the pre clearance facilities.

  • @Kris – corrected the reference to TSA, elsewhere I correctly wrote CBP.

    I believe the best hope for competition in US skies is allowing foreign carriers to operate in the US on US domestic flights.

    I would be happy for US carriers to do something proactive such as the discussion in the comments on London. Last summer some carriers did pay for extra CBP agents at JFK during peak times but I don’t see that creativity coming from US carriers. Delta AirFrance/KLM should try to do the same in AMS or CDG and that might make those European gateways more attractive for passengers now transiting instead from the Gulf. If I saw reports that the CBP was rejecting comparable proposals from US carriers in favor of Etihad that is something that would concern me. I don’t hear complaints of Aer Lingus’ advantage out of Dublin and Shannon and those US carriers that use those airports are welcome to use those as well.

    For Abu Dhabi specifically, are US carriers barred from flying there? I don’t know the details on US-UAE routes. If there is some block that would be appropriate for the US to lean on them to get access. If it is just that US carriers prefer Dubai, well, reports are Dubai Preclearance is coming, and I will curious to see if US carriers object so much then.

    Separate from this we all know CBP delays when processing passengers from flights from certain regions, Abu Dhabi certainly one. Passengers from following flights experience the ripple effects. Putting this on the front end so it is their pre-flight time and not mine works for me.

    It is always an interesting discussion in the US between are historic preference for limited role of government contrasted with expectation that the government do so much, as well as mixed feelings when the government partners with private companies.

  • nas

    It’s simple. ABu Dhabi approached US govt to build pre clear facility. The European countries have not and they see no need to. Jamaica has approached us govt but problem is their airport is not up to standard.