March 18, 2013, 6:45 p.m.; Corrected March 19, 2013 2:12 p.m.
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A proposal to allow foreign companies to foot the bill for U.S. customs agents to clear passengers in foreign airports has U.S. airlines up in arms, although the move could help the Department of Homeland Security deal with the effects of the sequester.
At the center of the debate is the Abu Dhabi-based Etihad Airways, a flag carrier of the United Arab Emirates. The carrier’s top executive, James Hogan, has stressed his company’s desire to pay for a preclearance facility at its hub in the UAE.
The airline, like many of the fast-growing carriers in the Middle East and Asia, has focused its growth on profitable international routes backed, at least in part, by deep government pockets that finance new, flashy planes with snazzy interiors. Allowing customers to clear passport and customs checks in Abu Dhabi before boarding flights to the U.S. would give the airline significant competitive advantage in flying American travelers home from the Middle East and Asia, both important growth markets.
Etihad’s quest for a preclearance facility in Abu Dhabi especially irks its American rivals, because none currently fly there. They say it would be unfair to use U.S. taxpayer resources at a facility that benefits no American carriers. American-owned carriers fly at least 40 percent of the U.S.-bound traffic from the 15 foreign airports that currently have preclearance facilities.
The U.S. airlines worry that budgetary pressure might force Homeland Security officials to put too much emphasis on staffing facilities that make money for Customs and Border Protection.
“This initiative could shift the resource-allocation dynamic to those most willing to pay, rather than those with the greatest need,” a coalition of industry groups, including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, wrote to Senate Appropriations Committee leaders.
Moak urged lawmakers to support Brown and Isakson’s amendment, warning that allowing customs facilities subsidized by carriers would create a “slippery slope” that could strain checkpoints in the U.S.
The pilots’ union also warned the White House last month that it will oppose “any authorization” in the president’s fiscal 2014 budget that would allow reimbursed preclearance facilities.
An earlier version incorrectly described the status of a provision in the Senate CR to allow foreign airlines to subsidize U.S. customs facilities at overseas airports. The provision was altered.