First flight departs to US using Customs checkpoint in Abu Dhabi

Experts say the Customs Border Clearance Gate at Abu Dhabi airport will benefit passengers and airlines

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ABU DHABI // The first flight to the United States using an American Customs checkpoint at Abu Dhabi International Airport departed on Friday.

The US embassy in Abu Dhabi confirmed the flight had left for Washington Dulles airport using the Customs Border Clearance Gate.

The gate, which is the first of its kind in the Middle East, is manned by US security officers who screen passengers before they board flights to the US, allowing them to bypass long immigration lines at the other end.

“Anything that facilitates the flow of people going and coming and makes it easier for people to get out of queues is a very good initiative,” said Dr Ahmad Shikara, of the Emirates Centre for Strategic Studies and Research in Abu Dhabi.

“Eventually, statistics will show how successful this scheme is but I think it’s definitely a great idea.”

Dr Shikara said the pre-clearance system would also improve security.

“The US is a country that uses the best technologies in the world,” he said. “So if you put the right people in the right position, they can find out any background information they need and ensure that necessary security checks take place.”

Dr Shikara said the Customs post was a result of good relations between the UAE and the US.

“Nowadays, the UAE and the US are on strategic terms,” he said. “This can only strengthen their relationship further.”

Dr Abdullah Baabood, director of Arabian Gulf studies at Qatar University, said the checkpoint should be welcomed.

“The system will help passengers, businesspeople and students reach different regions of the US while saving time,” Dr Baabood said.

“It also prevents any issues that can arise because of visas, if any passengers are suspicious due to their names and affiliations.

“If they get a clearance beforehand, I can see it as a good facility to have and find it helpful for them and the exchange of travel.”

He said it would also save them the hassle of being denied entry and forced to fly home because of unforeseen issues.

“We have many in the Middle East since September 11 that have had issues travelling to the US,” said Dr Baabood. “So anything that facilitates their entry, I see it as a positive step towards more exchange.

“There are a lot of students who go to the US and things like these will help them.”

But aviation organisations in the US disagreed, saying the system would only benefit passengers travelling on Etihad Airways.

The Air Line Pilots Association (Alpa) and the Southwest Airlines Pilots’ Association (Swapa) are among those who oppose the Customs post.

“Alpa strongly opposes the Abu Dhabi border post site because no US carrier currently flies between Abu Dhabi and the US, so only Etihad Airways would benefit,” the association said.

“Long Customs lines at airports are already hurting US airlines. Passengers from Asia or Europe could opt to fly Etihad Airways to avoid long Customs lines, instead of booking on US airlines.”

Capt Mark Richardson, president of Swapa, said: “Southwest pilots stand together with industry and labour partners to express our dismay at the [US] federal government’s regrettable actions in choosing to open this unnecessary pre-clearance facility at Abu Dhabi.”

He continued that “we oppose our own government tilting the playing field further against US airlines”.