July 22, 2013
Credit: Abu Dhabi International Airport
The U.S. airline industry has seen $7.4 billion in direct federal aid since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, as well as $9.7 billion in pension claims transferred to taxpayers since industry deregulation in 1978. But now it may have finally met its match in lobbying power here: national security.
That realization is becoming clear this month as the Obama administration finally disclosed the reasons behind its drive to establish a preclearance facility at Abu Dhabi International Airport in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), an airport not served by any U.S. carrier. The facility is a sop to Abu Dhabi's emirs and their Etihad Airways, U.S. airlines say, asserting that such a facility would drain their most profitable revenue stream—international travel—weakening them and their domestic service. But federal officials see much more at stake, starting with containing Iran and boosting U.S. exports, as well as perhaps strengthening the defense industrial base.
“There are many aspects of the economic piece that are not just focused on the concerns expressed by the U.S. carriers,” says the acting deputy commissioner of the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), Kevin McAleenan. “Preclearance in Abu Dhabi will enhance U.S. security objectives and continue to build on a strategic partnership with the UAE, a key ally in the Middle East.”
In both his prepared testimony and live remarks to a Republican-controlled House Foreign Affairs subcommittee July 10, McAleenan reiterated perceived benefits to U.S. aviation and national security from the preclearance facility, and he described the cost efficiencies of screening and stopping suspect travelers in the Middle East rather than in the U.S. He also directly countered that U.S. airline concerns should be paramount.
But those U.S. carriers, represented at the hearing by Airlines for America (A4A) CEO Nicholas Calio and Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA) International President Lee Moak, also stood by their strong objections to the preclearance facility. They called on Congress to stop creation of it and invest more money in reducing customs wait times at U.S. airports, in addition to more general support for U.S. industry in light of growing state-sponsored competitors worldwide.
“The establishment of a preclearance facility in Abu Dhabi is a competitive game changer that is advantageous to foreign competitors,” Calio says. “At a time when U.S. carriers and airports are fighting to maintain our global competitiveness, the U.S. government should not be signing a deal with the UAE that benefits a foreign emirate and its wholly owned national carrier. This deal clearly puts U.S. airlines and U.S. international hub airports and their employees at a competitive disadvantage, and it will only get worse.”
Members of the terrorism, nonproliferation and trade subcommittee showed obvious biases for or against implications of the deal in their questions to the witnesses, but many also expressed a desire to learn more about the issue, and no clear consensus developed during the hearing in opposition to or supporting the administration's move. The issue has been building since 2011 but climaxed April 15, when the UAE and CBP signed a deal for the facility.