The National puts US pre-clearance at Abu Dhabi Airport to the test

After reports of lengthy waiting times at the new pre-clearance border security post it was revealed that US authorities were working to reduce delays. Reporter Lucy Barnard, on her way to Los Angeles, reveals how long the process took her.

Inside Abu Dhabi International Airport. Courtesy Abu Dhabi Airports
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In January, Abu Dhabi airport opened its new pre-clearance border security post designed to improve security and to speed up the process of clearing red tape in the USA. However, after reports of lengthy waiting times, it was revealed last week that the US authorities were working to reduce delays.

So today, on a flight to Los Angeles, I tried out the facility to see for myself how the whole thing worked.

5.55am: Arrive at the airport having been told to allow plenty of time

6am: Check in at the premium check-in desk and given a US security form to fill in, which includes purpose of visit and place of stay in the United States. I was told to arrive at the gate 90 minutes before boarding time. I prepare myself for a long time waiting in queues.

6.05am: Still, with a bit of time to spare, I walk through to Etihad's plush business class lounge and grab a quick coffee and a bite to eat. I might as well prepare myself. The woman at the lounge check-in says I have to be at the gate an hour before boarding which sounds a little better.

6.49am: I finally drag myself away from the delights of the business class lounge and proceed to the special USA flights gates where I find another man giving out security forms.

I enter the UAE security checks area where I bypass a small queue of perhaps 10 to 15 people waiting in line. It seems like it is moving quite quickly.

6.54am: I enter the US border security section which is weirdly like having arrived in the US without having taken a flight. The desks are all staffed by US border staff and the hall is emblazoned with the US security logo and a picture of the president Barack Obama. The hall is massive and roped off in queue lines as though the authorities are expecting a large number of people. At the time I arrive, however, there is just one other person waiting.

7.01am: I proceed to US pre-clearance security. It is all very high-tech. My finger prints are taken electronically on a green light pad and my photograph is taken with a small digital camera. Then the lady points to a picture of my suitcase which I checked in and asks me to identify it – very exciting. She also asks me the purpose of my visit to the US, and my return date and whether I am bringing any fruit or rice. I risk a poor joke about hoping they have food in the US. She doesn't laugh. Then my passport is stamped with a US arrival stamp with the point of entry marked as AUH.

7.10am: I clear US pre-clearance security and arrive at the gate where I am now 50 minutes early for the official boarding time and nearly two hours early for my flight. There really isn't much to do here. The gate has one small coffee stand and bizarrely an out of order gold bar vending machine like the one at the Emirates Palace. Both of these are sectioned off so we can't get to them. I am very thankful there is Wi-Fi. The waiting area is surrounded by perspex panels and overlooked by a long corridor from which UAE soldiers, Etihad staff and security staff stare down at the prematurely arrived passengers. We all look suitably cowed. The Wi-Fi is very slow.

7.43am: Nearly five minutes before we are due to board and the Etihad staff are still making announcements requesting passengers travelling to LA to proceed to security.

7.57am: Still getting requests for passengers to head to the security check. Thinking about all the nice coffee I could be drinking in the premium lounge.

8.23am: I am informed that flight has been delayed. The new boarding time is now 9.20am.

8.52am: An announcement confirms that boarding will commence within 10 minutes. There are lots of grumpy-looking people and shrieking children at the gate.

8.58am: Yay - finally boarding.

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