The latest DHS “win-win” has plenty of losers


Late last Friday the Department of Homeland Security slipped out a press release. Typically when that happens it is all about bad news which they don’t really want coverage on. And yet the announcement was filled with flowery language speaking to how things were going to get better for travelers. But which travelers, exactly??

The news is all about adding 10 new pre-clearance facilities for air travelers inbound to the USA. Rather than queuing at the immigration hall upon arrival passengers will be checked at the departure airport. And several airlines, along with the US Airlines’ lobbying organization have all issued statements supporting the move. Which is strange because it probably works against the airlines a bit. Then again, the new rule is not supposed to help the airlines. Nor is it meant to help most passengers. And it is that inherent conflict which makes things interesting.

Immigration kiosks already speed the arrival process for many travelers, but they don't address CBP's bigger desires
Immigration kiosks already speed the arrival process for many travelers, but they don’t address CBP’s bigger desires

Frequent travelers, the folks most likely to be on the planes and use the pre-clearance facilities, are arguably the biggest losers in the deal. That’s because they are the passengers who are most likely to take advantage of the premium services offered in a terminal, the same services which are far less common in a pre-clearance facility. It means less time in a lounge, for example, though Etihad did just open a lounge inside the pre-clearance area at Abu Dhabi, so it can be done. Still, that is the exception, not the norm. And these are the passengers the airlines typically work to woo. They are the ones the airlines actually compete to attract, offering up premium services on the ground from time to time. They are the ones the airlines will now be hampered in fawning over. At a minimum the costs to do such go up.

These are also the passengers who typically have access to expedited screening facilities (i.e. Global Entry). And, yes, there can be Global Entry kiosks at the pre-clearance stations (and many have that today) but it still negates the efficiency of the program in many ways because of the timing of the clearance requirement.

For the average passenger it is probably a wash. The arrival experience absolutely is better, but the departure experience is worse. Moreover, if connections are involved then that connection must be longer, adding “bad” time to the overall journey in many cases. Of course, these are also the passengers who often spend money shopping in the airport terminals and the facilities to do so these days are rarely as plentiful in the pre-clearance areas. So they lose on shopping opportunities and the airport merchants lose on revenue. That’s bad for the airports, too.

And then there are the travelers the move is targeting: The undesirables. Adding additional pre-clearance facilities at these airports is all about keeping people out of the USA who authorities don’t want to have here. And so everyone else has to deal with the associated changes.

If DHS was serious about making things faster for all inbound passengers then increasing staffing at the arrival gateway airports would almost certainly be a more efficient use of CBP agent time. But that’s not the plan.

As for the airlines, I can see the advantage for US carriers in terms of fleet utilization by being able to turn planes faster upon arrival back to the USA. And I suppose that at the end of the day keeping costs in check is going to be more important than providing passengers with a better experience on the ground. But the DHS claim of “win-win for the traveling public” is a very, very hard one to believe.

And there’s the part where several of the named airports have multiple terminals with flights inbound to the USA. Moving those to a consolidated facility would be a massive (and expensive) undertaking. Perhaps that’s the best news as it means the changes are less likely to happen.

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Seth Miller

I'm Seth, also known as the Wandering Aramean. I was bit by the travel bug 30 years ago and there's no sign of a cure. I fly ~200,000 miles annually; these are my stories. You can connect with me on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn.

17 Comments

  1. Absolutely spot-on. This is bad for frequent flyers. With pre-clearance we have to go through security twice at overseas airports, the second time it’s U.S. security but without TSA Pre-Check.

  2. DHS doesn’t really care about faster throughput for passengers. It’s tasked with improving security, and pre-clearance is arguably an effective part of keeping the “undesirables” (your words) out.

    I have GREATLY appreciated pre-clearance during frequent trips to Toronto – typically arrive at YYZ about 60-75 minutes before the early morning flight and with GE, I’m usually US-side 15 minutes later. My domestic connections are MUCH faster (at least through ORD, DTW, LGA, ATL or MSP; DEN on UA is the exception, but I NEVER get a decent connection there). There’s also an AA lounge gate-side as well if I get through too early.

    I realize that experience may not be typical everywhere with pre-clearance, but I think the benefits for DHS are worth the minor inconvenience to FFs. Yes it may mean fewer minutes in an international lounge, but the vast majority of flyers, and I’d guess even the majority of FFs, don’t use them anyway.

  3. Well at least Germany and France have pretty much nixed any chance of this on their soil.

    Heathrow it’s hard to say…

    Virgin doesn’t announce gates until the last minute so people don’t wait in gate areas, so how that gets sorted will be interesting.

    Perhaps if preclearance is setup in a distributed fashion rather than a single point in the airport you can get away with telling people to queue up just before boarding time. But then the fast trackers get held up by the slowest hard to clear passenger.

    It also gets around having to create separate lounge facilities.

    I’d rather keep the status quo, but am frankly just curious at what the UK officials envision that has them welcoming this with open arms.

  4. Pre-Cleanance will be a nightmare for flyers — as anybody whom has passed through pre-clearance at Abu Dhabi can tell you. Fighting this ought to be a priority. The only people interested in pre-clearance are the CPB agents who will get cushy overseas assignments.

  5. The only place this seems to work well is Canada ยป USA. YYZ and YVR, for example, have enough frequency through the day that there are lounges behind immigration and security (including a Admirals Club in YYZ).

    I could see this working at a place like LHR or AMS with the volume of passengers, but can they build the infrastructure to make it work?

  6. While pre-clearance works for me in YYZ, I haven’t found it worth it anywhere else. It kills any chance for duty free shopping and the second security with no pre-check is a real pain. Don’t even get me started when there is a weather or mechanical delay.

    What really bugs me is the egregious empire building of DHS on foreign soil, in the name of a (false) sense of security. Why any foreign government would cede its sovereignty to U.S. agents is beyond me.

  7. @Brian and @Dave, for me, the problem with pre-clearance in Canada as well as other places is that you have to go through U.S. security without Pre-Check. So, shoes off, liquids out, etc. At most overseas airports, shoes stay on and liquids stay in (but are checked for size by the x-ray person).

  8. @Randy – For those with Nexus, there is a separate security line similar to TSA Pre-Check at YYZ. You can leave shoes and light jackets on, liquids stay in bag, but your laptop and large electronics still need to come out of the bag.

    There is also a Nexus line at the YVR pre-clearance security checkpoint, but that line has some very weird hours that I’ve never been able to figure out.

    Not sure if it Global Entry users can also use the Nexus line – I’ve seen some GE members allowed, while others were directed to the standard security line at other times.

    1. @Joe, I’ve flown through various Canadian airports many times. There is an “expedited” security line for those with NEXUS cards, but it’s not “similar to TSA Pre-Check.” You still need to take your shoes off and liquids out. It’s still a long, slow, hassle.

  9. The security/Pre-Check discussion is a red herring. True, there may not be PreCheck but you weren’t going to get that anyways with clearing the “traditional” security at any of the airports in question. And arriving inside security for the onward connection is better than clearing security again, even with PreCheck. Better to have only one “bad” security experience than that same bad experience plus a good one.

    1. That applies in Canada, where there is only one security check, but my understanding is that at other pre-clearance facilities, there is a second security check. So, aside from Canada, it’s not a red herring, it’s an additional hassle.

      1. I didn’t have 2 checks in BDA from what I recall. Nor in Dublin. It really comes down to how the airport is laid out, but I do not recall passing multiple screenings at any I’ve been through.

        If the plan is to let people in to “regular” air-side lounges and then eventually push them through pre-clearance there would be another check, but that’s not necessarily the way it would happen nor is it necessarily the way it does happen today.

        1. From reports, AUH certainly has a second security screening, and it’s reportedly a major hassle.

  10. Why do folks like the YYZ precheck so much? I have flown out of that terminal numerous times in the past 20 years.

    Prior to Nexus/GE terminals it was a PITA. You had to show up more than 2.5 hours prior to flight just in case the lines were backed up. Sometimes you were through in 15 minutes, other times you stood in line for 2 hours and started panicking about missing the flight (on top of being PO’d that you’d been in line for 2 hours).

    The only saving grace was the AA lounge that was airside in the event you cleared early. If you had no lounge pass then you stood around the terminal for 2 hours after having been ‘lucky’ to clear early.

    Yes, the experience is vastly improved since GE/Nexus, but… come on let’s remember how it was prior to this….

    Now imagine the ‘old YYZ’ experience in more airports, without the added benefit of airside lounge? and likely even less CBP officials working to clear long lines (I mean after all YYZ is only a 1 hour drive from Buffalo area so cost to bring officials would be far less) This is basically guaranteeing a 3+ hour check in experience (either waiting in line, or wandering aimlessly around a boring and dingy section of a terminal without the amenities that travelers to other parts of the world would have). Sounds like yet another hell foisted upon US travelers by their own government.

  11. Betting the US is going to make the host countries pick up a large portion of the costs for CBP Officer pay and overtime…possibly housing and utilities as well.
    Personally I think money would be better spent hiring and training more officers for use in the US.
    I worked Pre-Clearance in The Bahamas…Nassau.
    Great until the airlines all want to leave at the same time. Had something like 26 flights leaving between 10am and 2pm. Thankfully no large planes…usually about 150 passengers per plane maximum.
    But…staffing is LIMITED at pre-clearance ports. Hard to get extra people from another port at a moments notice. Lots of paperwork to move people in and out…expensive…limited to 5 years stay…so constant staff rotation. Many only stay the 2 year minimum and then go back home.
    We had days where everything went so smoothly…and others where 2 hours was not enough time to get through the line…and that was the US Citizen line.
    Enjoyed the off time at the beach…usually dreaded days at work…

    1. This is what I have wondered about pre-clearance – beyond the obvious huge problems in reconfiguring foreign airports for it, how much does it cost DHS to staff a position overseas versus the US? 2X? 3X?

      Even if the foreign airport/airline/government is willing to pay for this (and why would they be exactly?) this is not a money saving venture… unless there’s a huge bill for shipping people back to their country of origin I’m not aware of.

      In any event, I can’t say I’m onside with this idea unless it’s done right (facilities, staffing, etc) and I rather doubt it will be.

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