Why preclearance in Abu Dhabi is a bad deal for America

For starters, it establishes a disturbing precedent in which the U.S. government is picking winners and losers in the international aviation business at the expense of U.S. airlines, their employees, travelers and our overall economy. What’s more, American taxpayers are left picking up the tab for the DHS’s misguided decision to back a government-owned foreign competitor, essentially handing them a strategic competitive advantage over U.S.-based carriers. And finally, it diverts critical resources away from an existing problem that already needs solving – exceedingly long customs lines at entry points in U.S. airports.

It is difficult to imagine our own government is using U.S. taxpayer dollars to foot the bill for preclearance services in Abu Dhabi while passengers wait in lines up to four hours to clear customs at U.S. gateways. This diversion of taxpayer dollars to assist wealthy foreign airlines at the expense of U.S.-based operations cannot be justified. Our position is that no U.S. taxpayer dollars should be invested outside the U.S. before CBP corrects the mess at our own ports of entry. Can’t we all agree that U.S. customs resources should first and foremost be used to benefit the very passengers who fund preclearance facilities through the taxes and user fees they pay?

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The international routes that U.S. airlines fly are the most profitable part of our business. In an industry that collectively made just 37 cents per enplaned passenger profit last year, our ability to compete internationally is dependent on CBP’s ability to keep the movement of passenger and cargo flowing smoothly. By establishing this facility, DHS is actively tipping the scales in the UAE’s favor by making it much easier to enter our country if you fly through Abu Dhabi than it is if you fly directly into New York, Houston, Miami, Chicago or Dallas. Etihad Airways CEO even noted that this strategy will encourage travelers to book their travel connecting through Abu Dhabi to avoid the lines in the U.S. airports.

It comes as no surprise that government and airport authorities in the UAE welcome DHS’s decision. In a highly competitive international marketplace, what foreign government or competitor wouldn’t? The UAE views Etihad Airways as a strategic asset and its stated goal is to make Abu Dhabi International Airport the premiere worldwide hub. Perhaps the U.S. government should steal a page out of its playbook and show the same kind of support for its own domestic airline industry.

It is worth noting that DHS entered into this agreement knowing the U.S. Congress had directed it not to do so. Congressional approval had been granted for a very limited reimbursement pilot program at five domestic airports. The DHS-UAE agreement flies in the face of that directive. It’s no wonder more than 150 lawmakers from both sides of the aisle wrote to DHS expressing their concern over the issue and that so many lawmakers have expressed considerable skepticism over DHS and CBP’s national security argument for their action.

The U.S. airline industry is not afraid of competition, but we expect our government to work with us, not against us, to level the playing field. Our industry supports 10 million jobs and more than $1 trillion in annual economic activity. Our government’s actions should be designed to expand the U.S. airline industry’s ability to drive the economy, not undermine it. DHS should heed the message it has received from Congress, the airline industry, and aviation and travel professionals - halt this flawed agreement and instead pledge to work collaboratively with us to resolve lengthy wait times at U.S. airports.

Calio is president and CEO of Airlines for America. Moak is president of Air Line Pilots Association, Int’l. Wytkind is president of the Transportation Trades Department of the AFL-CIO.