I flew from Abu Dhabi to Los Angeles this summer. Upon arrival at LAX, I walked out of the plane and followed my fellow Etihad passengers. We were navigated through the airport where every now and again an airport staff member would be holding a board that said: Etihad passengers this way.
We walked through arrivals, past customs, beyond the queues of arrivals waiting to get scowled at by passport control, and right out of the airport, where a guy with a friendly wave directed us down some escalators, into another arrivals hall where our baggage was waiting. After showing my luggage tag matched the black Rimowa suitcase I was pointing at, I was free to go. The whole process took roughly 20 minutes and I imagine this is much what it must be like for an A-lister arriving on a private plane – no queues, no suspicious looks, no waiting. Because the last thing you want to do after getting off a 17-hour flight is to deal with American border guards.
So why were we, and no one else arriving at LAX, given a fast track out of the airport without even having to show our passports? It’s all part of Abu Dhabi’s U.S, Customs and Border Protection (CBP) Pre-Clearance Facility at the Abu Dhabi airport, introduced last year. Operated by 50 U.S. CBP officers, the system, which is supported by a two storey, 63,940 square foot facility located in Abu Dhabi’s Terminal 3, allows travellers to pass through immigration and customs before boarding, effectively arriving in the U.S. as domestic passengers.
The facility was opened in 2014 to facilitate travel between the pre-clearance location and some U.S. airports that might not be able to handle large amount of passenger arrivals. While pre-clearance facilities exist at most major Canadian airports, as well as similar arrangements in some airports in Aruba, The Bahamas, Bermuda and Ireland, Abu Dhabi is one of only a handful of airports outside of North America that offers the CBP facility. And Etihad is the only airline flying directly between the Emirate and the U.S.
It also allows travellers from Abu Dhabi with U.S. connections to have their luggage checked through to their final destination, instead of having to collect it prior to customs inspection and then having to check it in again for their connecting flight, a frustrating fuss I’ve never quite understood when transiting in the U.S. This also reduces the risk of missing connections. “It’s likely that more than one million passengers will have passed through the facility by the end of this year with many connecting through from destinations on the Indian Subcontinent and the Middle East region,” Peter Baumgartner, Etihad Airways’ CCO, tells me on the phone. “Additional facilities have just been added that have made the process even quicker, including greater numbers of officer processing desks and automated passport control (APC) kiosks; all of which expedites the U.S. entry process.”
So, what should you expect from the service at the airport? After checking in as normal, you then go through U.S. Transportation Security Administration (TSA) screening and Abu Dhabi police checks. Then, instead of whiling away the next two hours before boarding, you’ll go to an area that very much resembles arrivals at a U.S. airport. This is where you fill in your arrival forms and go to a desk staffed by U.S. CBP Officers who check and stamp your passport. It has all the mod-cons you’d expect at the other end – electronic finger printing, a camera taking your photo, as well as a flashy system that requires you to identify a picture of your suitcase before it’s boarded onto the plane. You then proceed through to the departure gates.
It should be noted that the U.S. Baggage Facility (USBF) handles the requirements for baggage weighing and imaging (for transfer bags) and radiation checks. Bags are security cleared in Abu Dhabi airport to U.S. domestic TSA standards. The process at both ends made me wonder why a lot more airports don’t offer pre-clearance. It would certainly make travel a lot easier, and quicker for that. Money, of course is one issue, and Abu Dhabi reportedly picked up 85 percent of the multi-million-dirham cost of the new facility. But while the rest of the world is waiting to catch up, I’ll be hanging out in Etihad’s premium lounge. After all, I’ll have little time to wait around once the plane touches down on U.S. soil.
Fly to Los Angeles from Abu Dhabi with Etihad from Dhs5,395. Visit etihad.com