Custom customers

Everybody loves customs preclearance, right?

What's not to like?

Passengers entering or returning to the U.S. on international flights from points in Canada or the Caribbean, for example, get to go through the customs and immigration check at the departure airport. They love it.

Airlines love it, too. Carriers in preclearance markets get to brag that their arrivals are a breeze.

It's a welcome breeze right now, especially, when federal budget woes seem to be creating long lines at some U.S. gateway airports. There are reports that some arriving flights at LAX, for example, are being held on the tarmac for extended periods before passengers can deplane, because of bottlenecks at customs.

Against this backdrop comes word that the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), the parent agency for Customs and Border Protection (CBP), is working on a deal for preclearance at Abu Dhabi, in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), with a reimbursement agreement whereby the emirate would pick up part of the tab.

At first glance, a deal to let the host country pay some of the costs doesn't sound too bad, nor does the idea of a preclearance station in faraway Abu Dhabi.

But the U.S. airlines' trade group, Airlines for America, is nevertheless crying foul.

The airlines fired off a letter to DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano blasting the "pay-to-play" approach, saying it will divert CBP resources to "the higher bidder" rather than to U.S. airports with the greatest need.

The letter also claimed that the DHS lacks congressional authority for such an agreement with a foreign government, adding that the plan would primarily benefit "a foreign emirate and its wholly owned national carrier," because no U.S. carrier serves Abu Dhabi.

The letter asked Napolitano to drop the plan and "instead continue to work collaboratively with the U.S. airline, airport and travel and tourism industries to resolve lengthy wait times at U.S. airports."

The letter was also signed by the Global Business Travel Association and groups representing pilots, consumers, airports and regional airlines.

It should be noted that this issue didn't spring up overnight. Secretary Napolitano visited Abu Dhabi in 2011 to discuss aviation security and information sharing and disclosed at the time that these cooperative steps could lead to a passenger preclearance pilot program.

But we're not there yet. As of last week, customs said it "continues to discuss the expansion of CBP preclearance to Abu Dhabi with the UAE; however, an agreement has not been signed to date. Any expansion of preclearance would have to advance CBP's security and passenger facilitation missions and be cost-effective for the federal government to be considered for the program."

We like cost-effectiveness almost as much as we like preclearance, so in our view, CBP should not be discouraged from considering reimbursement deals as a way to expand preclearance to additional foreign airports.

And it shouldn't matter much whether U.S. airlines have elected to serve these airports. CBP's primary job is to protect the nation and its citizens and to facilitate travelers, regardless of how they get here.

If properly structured, reimbursement deals might even make more resources available overall, which could be a good thing.

But the protesters in this case have raised some valid points, and it is incumbent upon the DHS to ensure that any such reimbursement deals do not adversely affect staffing levels and wait times at U.S. airports.
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