[As published by Nathan Hurst in CQ Roll Call]
U.S. airlines and the unions for the carriers’ employees are lining up behind legislation that would bar the Homeland Security Department from opening a U.S. customs facility at the airport in Abu Dhabi until a study on its impact can be completed.
At issue are claims that the facility might give Etihad, a state-supported United Arab Emirates carrier, an unfair economic advantage by allowing U.S.-bound passengers to clear customs checks before getting on their flights.
Customs and Border Protection already operates 15 such facilities in Canada, Ireland, the Bahamas, Aruba and Bermuda where American carriers have major operations and benefit from allowing passengers to clear customs before boarding U.S.-bound flights.
The proposal for a facility in Abu Dhabi has encountered stiff opposition because no U.S.-based carriers service Abu Dhabi. Etihad has signaled its intent to grow its presence in America, adding new service from New York to Milan to supplement its existing services between Abu Dhabi and Washington.
“By allowing international travelers flying to the United States to walk off their plane as a domestic passenger and quickly connect to their domestic flight, a customs preclearance facility presents a significant convenience for airlines to offer in attracting customers flying to the United States from Asia or the Middle East,” Capt. Lee Moak, president of the Air Lines Pilots Association said in a statement last week. “It is U.S. airlines and their employees, not their state-backed foreign competitors, that should benefit from a marketing advantage provided by the U.S. government as they compete to prevail in the global economic arena.”
A bipartisan coalition of 64 House members on introduced legislation (HR 3488) last week that would require a study on the impact of foreign facilities on U.S. airlines and staffing at stateside customs stations. Under the bill, new foreign facilities could not be opened until the study is completed.
Earlier this year, Congress barred the administration from entering “into agreements to expand or begin to provide U.S. Customs and Border Protection services outside of the United States” as part of a fiscal 2013 continuing resolution (PL 113-6). That didn’t stop the Homeland Security Department from inking an agreement with United Arab Emirates Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Zayed in April to move forward with the opening of a facility there.
Under the agreement, the UAE government would pick up about 80 percent of the cost. The Obama administration says opening a pre-clearance facility would significantly boost U.S. security in the Middle East and allow intelligence and border agents to better thwart potential attackers before they board a plane.
“We really think we need to project our security to the prior-to-departure area,” Kevin K. McAleenan, acting deputy commissioner for Customs and Border Protection told the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Terrorism, Nonproliferation and Trade during a July hearing.
Airlines and their workers reject those arguments, contending that the Abu Dhabi service would likely reduce staffing levels at U.S.-based checkpoints, since sequester-related cuts have stretched the border patrol thin.
Ed Wytkind, president of the AFL-CIO’s Transportation Trades Department, said the labor group is supporting the bill introduced by Reps. Patrick Meehan, R-Pa., and Peter A. DeFazio, R-Ore., because “it makes no sense” to build a foreign facility “where it only benefits the state-run airline Etihad.”