McAleenan said Abu Dhabi ranks in the top 10 origination airports for travelers who are positive matches to the Terrorist Screening Database. However, fewer than 5% of refused travelers arriving in the U.S. on flights from Abu Dhabi in the last two years were Emirati citizens; most were transit passengers from India, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and Bangladesh. Establishing security processes at the point of departure clears the way for other passengers arriving at New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport, Chicago O'Hare International Airport and Washington Dulles International Airport. “If these processes can be accomplished in Abu Dhabi, it not only removes the burden from CBP officers at these key domestic airports, but those CBP officers can devote time and attention to other travelers,” McAleenan said.
Moreover, the UAE airport authority has offered to reimburse the CBP for the full cost of operation to the extent authorized by U.S. law—or about 85% of U.S. costs associated with immigration and agriculture-related inspection activities—and the U.S. “will seek reimbursement for all allowable costs,” he said.
Left largely unstated at the hearing, but looming in the background, is the military cooperation and foreign military sales at stake, too. “That cooperation has taken on numerous dimensions, including purchase of advanced missile defense capabilities designed to counter Iranian ballistic missiles, as well as U.S. military deployments intended to demonstrate resolve to Iran,” states a June report from the Congressional Research Service (CRS).
The U.S. military presence in the UAE comprises mostly Air Force personnel and assets, deployed primarily at Al Dhafra AB, 20 mi. south of Abu Dhabi, and revolve around mostly KC-10 aerial refuelers, according to the CRS. But in April 2012, “possibly to signal additional resolve over Iran's nuclear program,” the CRS states, the U.S. deployed several Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptors to Al Dhafra, and U.S. forces in the UAE have since then only increased.
But all of that is little comfort for A4A and ALPA. “According to [U.S.] officials, plans exist to open several more preclearance facilities in the Middle East shortly after the planned opening of Abu Dhabi [airport],” Calio says. “The U.S. government is essentially facilitating our foreign competitors' strategy.”
Although they have been invited, no U.S. carriers fly to Abu Dhabi because it is not profitable, Calio explains, but Etihad is more concerned with growth and attention. “Granting the UAE a preclearance facility makes it easier to enter our country if you fly through Abu Dhabi than it is if you fly directly into JFK, Houston, Miami, Chicago or Dallas—or any other U.S. city,” he says.
And Calio stresses that the impact could hit close to home for lawmakers. “Our higher yields on international traffic are what enable us to provide subsidized—read 'unprofitable'—service to small- and medium-size communities that so many members of Congress want served,” he says. “Make no mistake: Etihad will not be providing service to Des Moines, Cleveland or Pittsburgh. And yet, with this facility, our own government is effectively picking winners and losers in the global market.”