DHS shouldn't aid foreign over US airlines

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Despite bipartisan opposition on Capitol Hill and industry-wide concerns raised by the aviation community, DHS and Customs and Border Protection (CBP) are moving forward with a plan to establish a preclearance facility at Abu Dhabi International Airport in the United Arab Emirates (UAE).
 
Preclearance facilities, which allow passengers to clear U.S. customs at their point of departure, do exist in Canada, Ireland and the Caribbean, where the passenger throughput meets the CBP threshold of 400,000 passengers per year. Abu Dhabi, on the other hand, is served by a single state-owned airline that recently launched nonstop service to Washington Dulles International Airport in addition to its existing service to New York and Chicago. No U.S.-based airline currently operates direct service from Abu Dhabi to the United States. Middle Eastern carriers, and their governments, make no secret about their aim to make places like Abu Dhabi global hubs for commerce and tourism. Abu Dhabi’s position is not surprising; having the U.S. government support that strategic aim at the expense of U.S. airlines, workers, airports and U.S. travel and tourism strains comprehension.
 
Even more disturbing is how DHS proposes to finance this facility. In what would be a risky and unauthorized precedent, DHS would enter into a reimbursable agreement with the UAE government for roughly 80 percent of the costs associated with clearing passengers for entry into the United States at the preclearance facility. This pay-to-play construct would create a long-term incentive for DHS to shift its sources of funding for a critical national security function.
 
Setting security concerns aside, there is still the basic question of service. Even pre-sequester, international travelers arriving in the U.S. faced some of the longest security lines in the world. Airlines have been working closely with CBP in an effort to address excessive wait times at major U.S. airports. Excessively long CPB lines discourage international travel and lower demand for international flights on U.S. airlines, thereby costing airlines and the U.S. economy billions of dollars in lost revenue. Additionally, there is the question of fairness. Airline passengers traveling to the U.S. provide $1.5 billion in funding to DHS for inspection services annually. Reducing their wait times should be a top priority of DHS and CBP; not using U.S. tax dollars to establish a preclearance facility abroad that would benefit a foreign government and a single foreign airline competitor.
 
And yet DHS and CBP have persisted in pursuing this flawed agreement with the UAE. They are doing so without clear Congressional approval. DHS recently sought approval from Congress to enter into a preclearance agreement with “any entity.” That did not happen. Instead, the recently passed Consolidated and Further Continuing Appropriations Act of 2013 authorized a limited reimbursement pilot program at five domestic airports. This rebuke should have sent a strong signal to the Administration – congressional support for a UAE-style preclearance agreement simply does not exist.
 
Airlines, airline pilots, and other members of the aviation community have delivered this very simple message to the Administration – DHS and CBP services and facilities should first and foremost benefit U.S. travelers and taxpayers, U.S. airlines and their employees, and the U.S. economy. DHS and CBP should heed this message and immediately ground the misguided Abu Dhabi agreement.

Calio is president and CEO of Airlines for America and Moak is president of Air Line Pilots Association, International.