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Overseas customs clearance angers some domestic airlines

A new U.S. Custom "preclearance" facility in Abu Dhabi has riled representatives of major American air carriers because they believe the money would be better spent domestically. Peter Greenberg reports
New Persian Gulf "preclearance" facility stirring debate over use of U.S. customs dollars 04:21

The 1,300 passengers flying from Abu Dhabi to the United States each day do not have to clear U.S. Customs upon arrival. That's because everyone is processed by U.S. Customs in Abu Dhabi before taking off, reports CBS News travel editor Peter Greenberg.

"At the end of such a long flight, the last thing you want to do is standing in a long cue for hours waiting to get cleared," passenger Philip Milton said.

"Preclearance" allows international passengers in 16 airports around the world to grab their bags and go, just like domestic travelers.

The Abu Dhabi government built the facility to U.S. government security specifications and then they brought over U.S. customs officers to train. That's when the protests started from some U.S. airlines.

American officials said it means better security and shorter waits, but U.S. airlines are arguing that the money should be spent instead to improve customs facilities and staffing in U.S. airports. Some have been questioning the security at the newest U.S. customs operation in Abu Dhabi.

"Looking at preclearance facilities overseas is not the answer," said Nicholas Calio, president of Airlines for America.

Calio represents the major American airlines opposed to preclearance, arguing the convenience creates an economic advantage for foreign carriers.

"If you can't get it right here, you shouldn't be sending any resources overseas and giving someone an advantage over people trying to come into this country," Calio said. "You ought to be able to clear JFK in the same time you clear Dublin."

Peak wait times to clear customs at some American airports can be excessive: 3.5 hours at Los Angeles and nearly five hours in Miami and New York's JFK.

Compare that to international travelers waiting under an hour to clear customs at 16 airports abroad, including Ireland, Aruba, Bermuda and Canada, where preclearance started in 1952.

"I think it's good for the U.S. economy and it's certainly good for our security which is our core mission and our responsibility," U.S. Customs acting deputy commissioner Kevin McAleenan said. "We wanted to increase our security footprint globally, especially in the region, so the United Arab Emirates was a natural place for us to seek to have a preclearance operation."

But the security benefit of preclearance is also being questioned.

In February, Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson was called to defend preclearance to a skeptical Congress.

"I believe it is a homeland security imperative that we improve that security one way or another, and I think preclearance is a good way to do that," Johnson said.

"Quite frankly I would rather see one of our guests, if they are going to be denied access to the U.S., it be done here," president and CEO of Etihad Airways James Hogan said.

Etihad Airways is the only airline offering non-stop service from Abu Dhabi to the United States.

"For the American carriers, I think it's a bigger issue for them," Hogan said. "I think maybe they are using us as a weapon to put pressure on the U.S. government."

"We need to have our system make sense," Calio said. "And making sense at our own borders is the key way to do that."

Time is also money, Calio said, adding: "Delays cost passengers and businesses billions and billions of dollars a year."

Any country meeting U.S. security requirements can offer preclearance, but until more of those foreign facilities open or improvements are made to expedite clearing customs here in the U.S., the majority of the flying public will continue waiting.

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