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ANALYSIS

Taking the strain out of Gulf-US flights

Manama, March 9, 2014

With little prospect of supersonic air travel making a comeback any time soon, flying between the Gulf and the US is likely to remain a testing experience for most passengers, writes Martin Rivers in the March issue of The Gulf.

Direct flights from the UAE to America’s East Coast take about 15 hours, and are typically followed by lengthy queues at US Customs and Border Protection (CBP).

Efforts to develop a successor to Concorde - the supersonic jet that halved transatlantic journey times until its retirement in 2003 - have to date been confounded by a mixture of economic, environmental and technological challenges. Mindful of this, Etihad Airways, Abu Dhabi’s flag carrier, is instead tackling the secondary issue of customs delays on the ground. On 24 January, Abu Dhabi became the 16th location in the world to offer pre-clearance of US customs on foreign soil.

The emirate’s new facility, which was approved by the US Senate as part of the $1.1 trillion Omnibus Appropriations Bill, allows CBP officers to conduct immigration, customs, and agriculture inspections on-site in Abu Dhabi. When passengers then arrive in America, they can depart the airport as swiftly as if they were domestic US flyers.

The benefits of pre-clearance to dreary-eyed travellers should be self-explanatory, and the concept has proven hugely popular at Ireland’s Shannon and Dublin airports. Nine other installations are also operational in Canada, and four in the Caribbean. But the establishment of a facility in the heart of a Middle Eastern capital has rankled some within the US airline industry.

“By allowing a CBP pre-clearance facility at Abu Dhabi International Airport - where no US air carrier currently flies - the US government is handing a state-subsidised airline, Etihad Airways … a major competitive advantage over US airlines,” says ALPA, a North American pilots union. “At the same time, the funding of this facility drains taxpayer money that would be better used to improve customs facilities at major US airports.”

ALPA’s objections, which are echoed by fellow industry groups like Airlines for America (A4A), reflect simmering concerns among US carriers about the prominence of their Gulf counterparts, especially Etihad.

Earlier in January, A4A persuaded the US transportation department to block part of a codeshare agreement between Etihad and its new equity partner Air Serbia. The proposed deal would have seen Air Serbia sell US-bound tickets that entailed a stopover in the Gulf. This eastward leg from Belgrade to Abu Dhabi was described as “bizarre at best” by A4A.

Industry observers agreed the lengthy routing would attract higher operating costs than more direct journeys, lending credence to A4A’s suspicion that Etihad might artificially lower fares on the route to distort competition. But ALPA’s arguments against pre-clearance seem less convincing. Setting aside its accusation of state subsidies - always vociferously denied by Etihad - the group’s two fundamental contentions have failed to sway the US government. Kevin McAleenan, CBP acting deputy commissioner, addressed both criticisms in his testimony to a House of Representatives subcommittee last summer.

On the issue of competition, he noted that two US carriers, United Airlines and Delta Air Lines, have held talks with the gateway about the possibility of launching flights. Moreover, American Airlines is a longstanding codeshare partner of Etihad, selling tickets on the latter’s flights from Abu Dhabi to three US hubs. “If American airlines were prevented from flying in and out of Abu Dhabi, we would not establish a pre-clearance location there,” he insisted.

Suggestions that the agreement is financially burdensome have also been rebuffed. McAleenan noted that 85 per cent of costs stemming from CBP’s Abu Dhabi facility will be reimbursed by the UAE’s aviation authorities. American taxpayers will therefore shoulder about $500,000 of expenses per year for a facility that has a projected annual operating cost of some $5 million.

Despite this, Lee Moak, ALPA’s president, alleges that US president Barack Obama is sanctioning the partnership for “geopolitical reasons that are unknown”. His rhetoric seems melodramatic, but geopolitics does indeed lie at the heart of the agreement - albeit in an altogether more transparent way.

During his House testimony, McAleenan highlighted two attempted terror attacks that have targeted airborne planes destined for US soil: the failed 2009 attack on Northwest Airlines Flight 253 by underpants bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab; and the failed 2001 attack on American Airlines Flight 63 by shoe bomber Richard Reid. Both men succeeded in carrying explosives onto aircraft, but ultimately failed to detonate their devices. “Terrorists seek to avoid US screening and targeting efforts by carrying out attacks on US-bound aircraft before arrival in the United States,” McAleenan noted.

Although two parallel initiatives - the Immigration Advisory Program and the Joint Security Program - allow US authorities to share information about high-risk passengers, McAleenan said pre-clearance by CBP staffers provides “important security benefits available in no other way”. Moreover, he said Abu Dhabi’s selection as the first such Middle East facility has little to do with commercial expedience. To the contrary, the gateway ranks among the top ten airports for passengers flagged by the FBI’s Terrorist Screening Database. Being both a regional and intercontinental hub, Abu Dhabi processes transit traffic from countries like Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Pakistan and Kenya - all viable pathways for would-be terrorists en route to the US homeland.

“Given these threats, and the specific routings and transit traffic through Abu Dhabi, pre-clearance provides clear US security benefits,” McAleenan argued. “CBP officers will have the ability and authority to inspect and interview passengers and examine baggage and personal effects prior to departure.”

It is only natural that US trade groups should seek to protect their members’ interests, and to that extent ALPA and A4A are justified in keeping a watchful eye over Etihad. The Gulf carrier may serve just four North American cities today - Chicago, New York, Washington and Toronto - but it is scaling up rapidly.

In March, Etihad will add a second daily flight to New York. It will start flying to Los Angeles in June, and Dallas in December. Codeshare agreements with American Airlines, Air Canada and JetBlue have strengthened demand on its North American routes, while ring-fencing transit traffic for its partners. Having bought stakes in seven international carriers, chief executive James Hogan is now rumoured to be shopping for a US equity investment. Any such purchase - although capped at 25 per cent under foreign ownership laws - would heap further pressure on his American rivals.

Nonetheless, ALPA and A4A are wrong to gloss over the tangible security benefits of pre-clearance in the Gulf. Local media reports suggest Dubai may be next in-line for a CBP facility. If true, that would be welcomed as a positive development by passengers, security officials and even US taxpayers. – TradeArabia News Service




Tags: Etihad | Direct flights |

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