US government moves to cut waiting times at Abu Dhabi airport preclearance

Demand for the facility at Terminal 3 has caused long queues and regular flight delays, prompting passenger complaints.

The preclearance process is designed to help transiting long-haul passengers who will arrive in the US like on any domestic flight, saving several hours after an already long journey. Ryan Carter / The National
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ABU DHABI // The new United States immigration clearance system at Abu Dhabi International Airport is to be speeded up after a flood of passenger complaints about delayed flights.

The system allows passengers and their baggage to be cleared for entry to the US before boarding the plane here, rather than endure the customs and immigration process at the other end, where it can take three times as long.

The procedure here includes customs declaration, baggage screening and fingerprint scanning. Demand for it at Terminal 3 has caused long queues and regular flight delays since it was introduced in January.

US Customs and Border Protection has now installed two kiosks at the airport for US citizens in its Global Entry programme, which offers fast clearance for approved, low-risk travellers.

The agency will also install automatic passport scanners for passengers from the US, Canada and countries with US visa-waiver arrangements, such as the UK. This will apply to more than 40 per cent of passengers travelling to the US, and will speed up passport control before they are interviewed by a border officer.

Etihad Airways expects the new passport kiosks to be installed in six to eight weeks. Passport control “will take two to three minutes, dramatically reducing the amount of congestion and the time to be processed through the pre-clearance facility”, said Chris Youlten, the airline’s head of airport and network operations.

“We understand that the US is constantly recruiting for more officers worldwide … they are also looking at increasing the resources here in Abu Dhabi,” Mr Youlten said.

The US border agency says the security procedures are necessary because of “an influx of passengers travelling through Abu Dhabi to the US” since the clearance system was introduced, and 80 per cent of people who now travel to the US from Abu Dhabi are transit passengers en route from other countries.

“This presents unique security challenges and creates the need for additional screening measures,” the agency said.

Despite the congestion, Etihad says the clearance process is still much quicker in Abu Dhabi than at destination airports in the US.

“Once you enter pre-clearance that is effectively US territory,” Mr Youlten said. “There’s no discrimination on the basis of premium or economy class guests. Every guest is the same.

“The average delay time in the early days was 90 minutes. Today it is less than one hour. Flying time makes up some of that time.”

Nevertheless, passengers have voiced their discontent. On a website called Flyer talk, where frequent travellers share their experiences, some complained that there were no priority queues and nothing to eat or drink after passing through clearance.

One post on April 7 said: “The incredibly long lines at Abu Dhabi preclearance continue. Yesterday, I took AUH-IAD [Dulles International in Washington] and it took well over an hour to go through the pre-clearance lines.”

Another post on May 11 said: “Packed area. I think Etihad should have a lounge after US immigration or find a solution to fast track their premium passengers. Etihad disappointed me. I will take the car to Dubai next time.”

Etihad operates three morning flights to Chicago, Washington and New York. It will add Los Angeles next month.

For further background on the US preclearance issues watch this video.

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