- Punta Cana
- Tokyo Narita
- London Heathrow
These should eventually join existing preclearance facilities, which are mostly in Canada:
- Abu Dhabi
Immigration preclearance is where you go through US immigration and customs before getting on your flight to the US. You land at your arrival city, then, as though you had gotten off of a domestic flight.
- Must be serviced by at least one US carrier (there was a lot of complaining by US airlines about advantaging a foreign carrier when they opened Abu Dhabi)
- Must be willing to provide a preclearance facility that meets US requirements
- Must be willing to reimburse US costs to the maximum extent permitted by US law .. in other words, they have to be the ones paying for it more or less.
- Must be willing to grant US immigration personnel diplomatic privileges and law enforcement authority within the facility.
US Airlines Are In Favor of This Expansion
Airlines think that preclearance facilities benefit them. There was a tremendous outcry from US carriers when a preclearance facility opened in Abu Dhabi, since the only Abu Dhabi-US flights are operated by Etihad. This was supposed to give Abu Dhabi connections an advantage, though the implementation of preclearance there has largely been a negative for US-bound connections.
With the announcement that the US had plans to expand to 10 new cities, the lobbying group for US airlines immediately applauded. American Airlines sent out a press release applauding the news and noting that they serve 7 of the 10 proposed cities. (Two of the 10 – London Heathrow and Madrid – are hubs of their joint venture partners British Airways and Iberia.)
Here’s Why the US Government Likes Preclearance
Bundling airports that US airlines serve broadly alongside ones that get limited service from US carriers was sufficient to garner their support for the move. But the establishment of preclearance facilities is not for the purpose of benefiting passengers or airlines.
The reason the US government wants to expand preclearance is security, not passenger or airline benefit. The government gets to interview and stop passengers from boarding US-bound planes at their point of origin, rather than denying entry once someone is on US soil. There’s already a no fly list but that’s imperfect in the extreme. The Department of Homeland Security goal is for one-third of US-bound passengers to go through immigration preclearance by 2024.
Which Passengers Win and Which Passengers Lose
There’s little benefit to customers with Global Entry. They already clear immigration quickly on arrival. There’s little benefit to passengers compared to immigration kiosks. For these passengers it’s almost exclusively downside. There’s a potential benefit for non-U.S. travelers, though that depends on the particulars of how Global Entry is implemented.
You do get shorter minimum connection times on arrival in the U.S. You can’t book flights with tighter connections on arrival when you have Global Entry, even though you don’t need the same connection times that passengers who don’t have Global Entry do. But when arriving in the US from a country where there’s preclearance you’ll have domestic minimum connection times apply. That means you can make shorter connections than you can even as a Global Entry-qualified individual.
Everyone will have to get to the airport earlier, or make longer connections. You need more time at the airport where you’re clearing immigration — Global Entry or not. Even a passenger with Global Entry will have a longer required connection in the city where they’re making a connection, which limits the range of flights they’ll be eligible to take.
Assuming you have to clear security after going through immigration, you won’t be able to bring bottled water through. In Abu Dhabi you clear security entering the terminal and then again after immigration preclearance (you had to clear security a second time for US-bound flights even before the preclearance facility opened). That means you won’t be able to take water onto the flight, unless you buy it after going through immigration and the final security check, if there are any shops in the gate area. (Stocking those shops will be even tougher than stocking restaurants airside.)
If there’s a single preclearance facility, it’s likely that there will be either no lounges or shared lounges. Air Canada has enough flights where they’re able to offer ‘transborder lounges’ in certain facilities, and they’re up to the airline’s usual standard, but that’s the exception. Unless an airline has substantial US flights they likely won’t have a lounge at all. And limited facilities, designed largely to accommodate US government specifications, will make it difficult to build quality lounges. In most cases current lounges won’t serve these facilities well.
An Illustration of How Complicated This Will Be: Heathrow
How in the world is Heathrow going to manage US immigration preclearance? The volume of flights to the US is huge. It seems nearly impossible that they would be able to move US flight operations to a single terminal, in order to have one US preclearance facility.
Virgin Atlantic’s flights are mostly US (and Caribbean)-focused.
As it stands, there’s been shifting around of flights to move Delta and Virgin Atlantic together (Delta owns a 49% stake). British Airways operations out of Terminal 5 can’t accommodate American Airlines (terminal 3), and yet it’s unlikely that BA would be able to move all its US-bound flights to T3. If they did, of course, that would mean the end of access to BA’s better lounges (such as they are).
And that doesn’t factor United’s flights, which would lose connectivity with their Star Alliance partners if they were moved.
London Heathrow will almost have to have multiple preclearance facilities, to avoid making the airport even more of a mess for connections than it already is.
This Won’t All Happen Soon
The release was only about which airports have been selected to have preclearance facilities. Specific negotiations still have to occur in each case, and then construction of the facilities have to happen. It’s one thing to do that in Abu Dhabi, where such things can be fast tracked, but given the complexities and long processes in places like London we can expect that many of these facilities won’t open for quite some time.
As a frequent international passenger who has Global Entry, I’ll be pleased to see this put off as long as possible.