Reps. Peter DeFazio and Patrick Meehan: Don’t subsidize a wealthy foreign airline at the expense of US carriers and workers

Guest Commentary

Should American taxpayers finance a facility that would make it easier to enter the United States from an oil-rich principality on the Persian Gulf than from JFK Airport in New York City? What if this project gave a state-owned foreign carrier an unfair advantage over the US airline industry and its more than 500,000 employees, while worsening wait-times at American airports. 

If anyone asked the American people, they’d answer “No!” And Congress agrees. But, despite Congress’ clear opposition, the US has signed a preliminary agreement with the United Arab Emirates (UAE) to build a pre-clearance facility at Abu Dhabi International Airport, benefitting the UAE’s state-supported airline at the expense of US airlines, workers and travelers.

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That’s why we have introduced legislation that sets commonsense standards for US customs services overseas:  At least 180 days before agreeing to establish a preclearance facility in a foreign country, the Department of Homeland Security would have to inform Congress about its impact on passengers traveling to the US, US air carriers and their employees, and customs staffing levels at American airports.

Although it wouldn’t apply to any preclearance facility currently in operation in Canada, Ireland or the Caribbean, our bill would call a halt to the agreement with the UAE, while preventing future giveaways to foreign carriers at the expense of US airlines and American workers and travelers.

Why must Congress take action? Just look at the facts about the deal with Abu Dhabi, the deteriorating consumer service at US Customs and Border Protection, and the dire condition of the American airline industry.

Currently, there are 15 US preclearance sites at foreign airports, allowing passengers to clear US customs before departure, avoiding long wait-times at domestic airports. But the preclearance facility at Abu Dhabi would be the wrong kind of “first”: the only one at a foreign airport that isn’t served by any US airline.

In fact, the only airline with regular service from Abu Dhabi to the US is Etihad, the state-run national airline of the UAE. By building and staffing a preclearance facility where no American airline flies, the US government would be helping a wealthy foreign airline to compete against US carriers and wipe out American jobs. 

Even without a helping hand from American taxpayers, Etihad is the fastest-growing airline in aviation history. Founded in 2003, Etihad now operates more than 1,000 flights per week to every corner of the globe.

With the new US customs facility further fueling Abu Dhabi Airport’s rapid growth into a global hub, Etihad would gain another competitive edge over US airlines, encouraging air travelers from the far east to route themselves through the UAE on journeys to the US and other destinations, instead of flying on an American carrier that supports US jobs.

Meanwhile, by diverting taxpayer dollars to benefit a wealthy foreign airline, the facility would exacerbate the staffing shortages at lengthening customs lines in US airports. Travelers would face longer wait-times at airports in the US than at the airport in the UAE.

Subsidizing a foreign airport while shortchanging domestic airports would be yet another body blow to the already battered US airline industry. This sector generates over a trillion dollars of economic activity, directly employs over a half million workers, and indirectly supports ten million jobs, while providing the safest and most reliable air transit system in the world.

With their commitment to quality and safety, US airlines can be global leaders in commercial aviation. But they can’t be expected to compete and win, while our own government tilts the playing field against them.

Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-OR) is a senior member of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee where he serves on the Aviation Subcommittee. Rep. Patrick Meehan (R-PA) is a member of the House Homeland Security Committee and the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.