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.
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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