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Airlines, Business Groups Aim to Block U.S. Customs Facilities in Foreign Airports

Paul J. Richards/AFP/Getty Images
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.

A coalition of U.S. airlines, their employee unions and business groups is opposing a proposal that would allow companies to foot the bill for U.S. customs agents to clear passengers at foreign facilities, saying it would give international competitors an unfair advantage.

A provision tucked into an early draft of the Senate’s fiscal 2013 continuing resolution (HR 933) would have allowed U.S. Customs and Border Protection to establish up to five new preclearance facilities at foreign airports, with the costs reimbursable by foreign companies.

While the version of the stopgap spending bill now on the Senate floor has dropped that provision, it would still allow the government to accept reimbursement for domestic customs facilities. Airlines worry that could drive staffing decisions at customs facilities and ultimately shift more of the costs to domestic carriers. An amendment by Sens. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, and Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., would strike the language from the bill.

U.S. customs facilities are already in place in Canada, the Caribbean and Ireland, where both U.S. passengers and airlines are commonplace. The facilities are intended to reduce congestion at U.S. ports of entry and improve convenience. They also allow international travelers to connect to flights into U.S. airports without regular customs inspections.

American carriers generally oppose proposals to expand preclearance facilities, contending it would allow foreign flag carriers — including those backed or owned by their governments — to buy their way into a competitive advantage in an otherwise highly regulated industry.

Capt. Lee Moak, the president of the Air Line Pilots Association, the nation’s largest pilots’ union, calls the idea a “serious handicap” for U.S. carriers. After years of tumult, which have included significant staffing downsizing, U.S. carriers remain only marginally profitable and are sensitive to anything threatening their valuable international routes, which usually turn larger profits.

But the prospect of recovering personnel and facilities costs from foreign airlines while easing congestion at U.S. gateways could be enticing for the Department of Homeland Security, as the agency wrestles with the effects of the sequester. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano warned travel industry officials in a letter last month that the automatic budget cuts could increase wait times at passport and customs inspection stations by “50 percent or more, with peak waits up to 3-4 hours or more at some gateway airports.”

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