DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — Passengers travelling from the United Arab Emirates to the United States will avoid long U.S. Customs lines now that a new preclearance facility has opened in Abu Dhabi's airport, officials said on Sunday, although the development has drawn criticism from U.S. pilots and members of Congress.
Critics allege the decision to open the facility was made mainly on the basis of funding offered by the UAE, which pays 85 percent of the costs associated with the operation, including the salaries of U.S. Customs and Border officials.
In exchange, travelers may be lured to fly from Abu Dhabi direct to the United States on Etihad Airways, the UAE's national carrier and sole airline flying non-stop between the two locations. The facility does not process cargo.
The U.S. has preclearance passenger facilities throughout Canada, in four Caribbean locations and Ireland. The new facility in Abu Dhabi, which allows passengers to complete U.S. customs and immigration before boarding flights to the United States, is the Middle East's first. It is also the first preinspection arrangement to be enacted with another country since the 1980s.
U.S. Embassy spokesman Jeffrey Ladenson told The Associated Press that the first flight using the U.S. Customs and Border Protection preclearance inspection took off Friday from UAE's capital city of Abu Dhabi for Washington-Dulles airport.
Some U.S. lawmakers and domestic airline associations were angered because they say the decision gives competitive advantage to Etihad over U.S. airlines, which don't fly direct between Abu Dhabi and the U.S.
In a statement to the AP, Etihad said that additional flights to the U.S. will be processed via the facility in the coming days. The state-backed airline currently operates non-stop daily flights from Abu Dhabi to New York, Washington D.C. and Chicago. It plans more routes this year to Los Angeles and Dallas.
The airline has codeshare partnerships with JetBlue Airways and American Airlines that allow passengers to fly on routes operated by both carriers on a single ticket.
The Air Line Pilots Association said on its website that it opposes the Abu Dhabi facility because only Etihad benefits from the agreement. Long customs lines at airports are already hurting U.S. airlines and passengers from Asia or Europe could opt to fly Etihad over U.S. carriers to avoid those lines, it added.