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Published on November 20th, 2016 | by Jim Lee

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United States approves process to expand the number of airports with Pre-clearance facilities

On 4th November, the United States Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson, announced that an additional 11 airports, outside the US, located in nine countries, had been selected for possible Pre-clearance expansion. If Pre-clearance operations are expanded to these airports, travellers would, like those departing from Dublin and Shannon, undergo immigration, customs, and agriculture inspection, by U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), before boarding a flight to the United States, rather than upon arrival. By switching immigration and passport control to the country of departure, passengers effectively arrive in the United States as if they were U.S. domestic ones. U.S. CBP officials are actually based in the country where Pre-clearance takes place: staffing is not outsourced to local third parties.

The U.S. CBP part of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), with more than 60,000 employees, is one of the world’s largest law enforcement organisations and as the United States’ first unified border entity, it takes a comprehensive approach to border management and control, combining customs, immigration, border security, and agricultural protection into one coordinated and supportive activity. It is responsible for enforcing hundreds of U.S. laws and regulations.

On a typical day, CBP welcomes nearly one million visitors, screens more than 67,000 cargo containers, arrests more than 1,100 individuals, and seizes nearly tons of illicit drugs. Annually, CBP facilitates an average of more than $3 trillion (around € 2.83 trillion) in legitimate trade while enforcing U.S. trade laws.

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Pre-clearance is particularly beneficial to passengers who have an ongoing connecting flight, as there is a much-reduced risk of border delays, which could cause them to miss their connection. In addition, passengers with ongoing connections have their baggage checked through to their destination. Without Pre-clearance, the baggage would have to be collected prior to customs inspection and then rechecked onto the subsequent flight.

Pre-clearance arrangements, are already in place for flights from Canada, the Caribbean, the two Irish airports and Abu Dhabi in the Middle East, none of which were regarded by the U.S.as being representative of a ‘security imperative’. In addition there are other, existing Pre-clearance stations in use, for marine transport and surface transport such as rail. Existing airports with Pre-clearance as shown in the following table:-

Country/region Airport(s)
Canada Calgary, Edmonton, Halifax, Montreal (Trudeau), Ottawa, Toronto, Vancouver, and Winnipeg.
Caribbean/Atlantic Aruba, Bahamas (Freeport), Bahamas (Nassau) and Bermuda.
Ireland Dublin and Shannon.
Middle East Abu Dhabi.

In March 2016, U.S. and Canadian officials announced that Pre-clearance would become available at the Toronto Island and Quebec City (Jean Lesage International) airports, as well as Montreal Central Station. The new terminal building opened at Toronto Island Airport in 2010, already had provision for U.S. border Pre-clearance, but U.S. sanction had not been forthcoming, until then.

Pre-clearance applies to U.S. citizens as well as citizens of most other countries who travel to the U.S. As United States and Canadian laws require that those in transit must pass through the relevant customs, Pre-clearance also applies to transit passengers.

CBP currently has more than 600 law enforcement officers and agriculture specialists stationed at the 15 air Pre-clearance locations, referred to above, but from the U.S. point of view, the security benefits of Pre-clearance, includes preventing high-risk travellers from boarding aircraft bound for the U.S. In addition to enhancing security, Pre-clearance generates the potential for significant economic benefits for the U.S. and its international partners, by reducing wait times at domestic gateways, creating an overall increase in clearance capacity, facilitating quicker connections to U.S. domestic flights, and maximising aircraft and gate utilisation. 

11 airports, located in nine countries selected

The 11 airports identified for possible Pre-clearance locations include: El Dorado International Airport (BOG) in Bogota, Colombia; Ministro Pistarini International Airport (EZE) in Buenos Aires, Argentina; Edinburgh Airport (EDI) in Edinburgh, United Kingdom; Keflavik International Airport (KEF) in Iceland; Mexico City International Airport (MEX) in Mexico City, Mexico; Milan-Malpensa Airport (MXP) in Milan, Italy; Kansai International Airport (KIX) in Osaka, Japan; Rio de Janeiro-Galeão International Airport (GIG) in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil; Leonardo da Vinci-Fiumicino Airport (FCO) in Rome, Italy; São Paulo-Guarulhos International Airport (GRU) in Sao Paulo, Brazil; and Princess Juliana International Airport (SXM) in St. Maarten.

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US Secretary for Homeland Security Jeh Johnson announces 11 new pre-clearance locations

“Expanding Pre-clearance operations has been a priority of mine as Secretary. Pre-clearance allows DHS to screen individuals prior to boarding a flight, which means we are able to identify threats long before they arrive in the United States,” said Secretary Johnson. “I look forward to the opportunity to grow our Pre-clearance operations in the Western Hemisphere, particularly into South America where CBP does not currently operate a Pre-clearance location.”

More than 10 million travellers fly to the United States from these airports each year.

“Pre-clearance has proven to be a valuable tool for CBP, foreign airports, the aviation industry, and most importantly, the traveller, who benefits from shorter wait times,” said CBP Commissioner R. Gil Kerlikowske. “CBP pre-cleared more travellers than ever before last year, 18 million, accounting for about 15.3% of all commercial air travel to the United States. Not only were those millions of travellers able to immediately leave the airport or directly head to their connecting flight upon landing in the United States, but that’s 18 million fewer people waiting in line for CBP officers to process at the Nation’s busiest airports.”

 The selection process

The process for this round of Pre-clearance approved airports began in May 2016, with DHS seeking letters of interest from foreign airports, CBP identified the selected airports in coordination with the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) and the Department of State (DoS) and prioritised them based on them having the “greatest potential to support security and travel facilitation”. Both departments evaluated all interested foreign airports, in collaboration with stakeholders across the government.

More than two dozen airports are understood to have expressed an interest in opening Pre-clearance facilities, from which the final list of less than half that were chosen.

Now that the selections have been made, negotiations with the host countries can now begin, which may eventually result in an air Pre-clearance agreement, and the establishment of the new Pre-clearance facility, in the designated airport.

Equally importantly, buildings and fixtures must be constructed to the exact specifications of the CBP service, and it falls to the host airport to pick up all the costs of constructing a facility, to meet these specifications. How much this costs depends on the airport, but it can run into tens of millions of euros, but for these host airports it works and it is and a sensible commercial decision.

Apart from the physical factors, details of the agreement have to be hammered out and the whole process can take more than a year.

United States and Sweden signed an agreement to implement Pre-clearance operations

As the Secretary of Homeland Security was making his announcement on the additional 11 airports, it was confirmed the United States and Sweden had signed an agreement to implement Pre-clearance operations, at Stockholm Arlanda Airport. Stockholm was one of 10 airports, in nine countries, identified for Pre-clearance expansion, announced by Secretary Johnson, in May 2015. The other locations prioritised for Pre-clearance during the first open season were: Brussels Airport, Belgium; Punta Cana Airport, Dominican Republic; Narita International Airport, Japan; Amsterdam Airport Schiphol, Netherlands; Oslo Airport, Norway; Madrid-Barajas Airport, Spain; Istanbul Ataturk Airport, Turkey; and London Heathrow Airport and Manchester Airport, United Kingdom. In 2014, over 16 million passengers from these airports were cleared through U.S. Pre-clearance locations.

Announcing the programme expansion on 29th May 2015, Secretary Johnson said: “A significant homeland security priority of mine is building more Pre-clearance capacity at airports overseas. We have this now in 15 airports. I am pleased that we are seeking negotiations with ten new airports in nine countries. I want to take every opportunity we have to push our homeland security out beyond our borders so that we are not defending the homeland from the one-yard line. Pre-clearance is a win-win for the traveling public. It provides aviation and homeland security, and it reduces wait times upon arrival at the busiest U.S. airports.”

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US Customs and Border protection control

The agreement with Sweden was particularly important, as approximately half of the passengers travelling between Sweden and the United States, go via other European airports, such as Amsterdam Schiphol, London Heathrow and Frankfurt. Having Pre-clearance at Stockholm Arlanda makes the conditions for more direct flights stronger, and accordingly the application was supported by both the Swedish Government and the business sector.

The agreement will only be brought into force after the Governments have completed all necessary internal procedures and these include the construction of the necessary facility. This is planned for the lower level of the F-pier in Terminal 5 at Arlanda and the final design involved detailed discussion with Swedavia, the airport operator and the U.S. authorities. The construction is estimated to take between 12 and 18 months and is part of Swedavia’s plans to invest SEK13 billion (around €1.32 billion), in a major redevelopment of the airport. Once this work is complete, Pre-clearance operations could begin as early as 2019.

According to studies carried out by the state airport operator, Swedavia, more than 70% of today’s U.S. passengers support the introduction of U.S. Pre-clearance. Above all, they welcome the opportunity to be able to change to connecting flights in the U.S. more smoothly.

How will the expansion of Pre-clearance operations could affect Ireland

Obviously, having Pre-clearance at Dublin and Shannon confers a competitive advantage, as they are the only EU airports with Pre-clearance, and both use it as a selling point to attract business. Dublin Airport now attracts around one million passengers a year who use it to connect to flights between Europe and the US, many of whom fly Aer Lingus. Pre-clearance is seen as one of the elements in attracting this business.

It is also an important factor for Shannon and was key to attracting extra services, such as the British Airways London City to New York service, and many suspect that both airports could suffer, as Pre-clearance facilities are expanded across Europe.

Expansion to London Heathrow Airport might not be as significant as to Manchester or Edinburgh, as the size of Heathrow and the difficulty of centralising Pre-clearance across the multitude of terminals, may be outweighed by the relative convenience of Dublin. However, whatever border arrangement that might emerge post Brexit, would also be important. Keflavik in Iceland, on the other hand, could present challenges particular with the expansion of low cost services by WOW Air.

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Dublin Airport does not appear to be unduly worried, as its management believes that it has other advantages. It currently ranks fifth largest as Europe’s transatlantic gateway, due no doubt, to the well-developed network of European and UK feeder services provided by Aer Lingus and also by Ryanair. A record one million passengers used Dublin Airport’s U.S. Prclearance facility in 2015. Passenger numbers were up 19% in the first six months of the year with over one million passengers travelling to and from destinations in the U.S. during that time.

Other initiatives such as Automatic Passport Control (APC) kiosks have also helped and earlier this year, the Airport’s Pre-clearance facility in Terminal 2, reached a significant milestone of its one millionth passenger to use them. The APC kiosks were introduced in December 2014, to improve efficiency in processing times and the overall passenger experience through U.S. Pre-clearance. More than half of all U.S. Pre-clearance passengers travelling through Dublin Airport this year have used this technology.

The 4th November Pre-clearance announcement was an indication that the outgoing Administration supported efforts, to accelerate the growth of the American travel and tourism industry, while at the same time enhancing security, by preventing high-risk travellers from boarding aircraft bound for the United States. The CBP has confirmed that it intends to engage with many of the host governments selected for Pre-clearance and expects to announce additional agreements in the coming months.

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About the Author

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Jim has had a life-long interest in military matters and aviation. Initially, he fused both of these interests together with a passion for military aviation, initially as a photographer. He has travelled extensively over the years and has been the guest of many European air forces, plus the air forces of the United States, Russia and others throughout the world. His first introduction to journalism coincided with an interest in the civil aviation industry was when he initially wrote for and later edited, ‘Aviation Ireland’, the club magazine of the Aviation Society of Ireland. Jim was a contributor to Flying in Ireland since its inception over 10 years ago and is now a key contributor to this site. He has also contributed items for a number of other aviation magazines and has produced a number of detailed contributions to Government policy documents, most recently the Irish Government’s White Paper on Defence. He is also deeply involved in the local community and voluntary sector and has worked both in local government and central government.



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