Loading

Edinburgh seeks UK first US border pre-clearance airport title: part one – ten years and waiting

Analysis

Even though immigration ‘pre-clearance’ into the US for transport passengers has existed for over a century, there has been very slow progress in implementing it globally more recently.

Passengers availing of pre-clearance formalities have passports checked by US immigration officials and cleared by US customs for entry into the US at their departure airport. They are not subject to further check, because flights arrive at domestic rather than international terminals at US airports.

The 15 airports that benefit from pre-clearance have not been added to for years. It seems Edinburgh Airport in Scotland, first proposed in 2012 but which only became a formal candidate years later, may overtake London Heathrow and Manchester airports to be the first UK airport in the scheme.

But for all the benefits of the arrangement (as Dublin Airport in particular would testify), there are pitfalls, including security, user satisfaction (airlines as well as passengers), and funding issues.

This two-part report examines the benefits and disadvantages. This is part one.

Summary

  • Edinburgh Airport may jump the queue ahead of Heathrow and Manchester to get US immigration pre-clearance facilities.
  • In Ireland, Shannon and especially Dublin airports have long been beneficiaries.
  • The implementation progress generally has been slow, there are some disadvantages to the scheme and security concerns predominate. And who picks up the tab? 
  • A previous CAPA report highlighted slow progress, the security concerns, and the disadvantages of the scheme.

Scotland’s Edinburgh Airport sets out its stall to be the UK’s first US Border Control pre-clearance zone – ahead of Heathrow and Manchester

Edinburgh Airport is seeking to become the UK's first pre-clearance zone for services to the US, which would allow passengers at the airport to complete US immigration checks before departure.

Dublin Airport and Shannon Airport in Ireland are the only two European airports to offer the service, with US officials ‘implanted’ there.

Initially identified in 2012...formally selected in 2015

As long ago as May-2015, in what is evidently a slow-moving process, what has been Scotland’s fastest growing airport over the past five years or so had been selected by US officials as one of 11 possible new sites for expansion of their pre-clearance operations, along with London Heathrow and Manchester airports. 

Edinburgh Airport: annual traffic, passenger numbers/growth, 2012-2022

The initial proposal to put Edinburgh and nearby Glasgow International Airport forward as candidates for fast track entry checks was first considered by the UK’s Department for Transport (DfT) as long ago as 2012.

Passengers availing of pre-clearance formalities have their passports checked by US immigration officials and cleared by US customs (Customs and Border Protection, or CBP) for entry into the United States at their departure airport. Passengers are not subject to further check as flights arrive at domestic rather than international terminals at US airports.

Dublin Airport has long been a pre-clearance beneficiary

It is a procedure which has undoubtedly benefitted Dublin Airport since the second terminal opened there in 2010 along with the pre-clearance facility. Presently Dublin offers 11 US destinations, more than any UK airport apart from Heathrow, with extensive connecting flights available from Europe, and especially the UK (21 airports).

Such ease of access to the North Atlantic network (mainly Aer Lingus and regional partners), together with the immigration pre-clearance, has ensured that Dublin has attracted a large share of the UK-US market from regional airports in particular.

In contrast, there are only 10 UK airports with flights to Heathrow, the UK’s primary gateway, and Manchester has not yet reclaimed all the US services it lost during the COVID-19 pandemic.

It is likely that Edinburgh also sees an opportunity to attract regional UK air services as well for connecting flights to the US, possibly even from the south of England if there is sufficient demonstrable time-saving involved.

But principally its interest would be in the attraction of more US tourists as a gateway to and from the UK and Europe on the same basis of ease of access, egress and transit. Edinburgh is already the joint-second most visited city in the UK by foreigners, after London.

Previous CAPA report highlighted slow progress, security concerns and disadvantages of the scheme

On several occasions CAPA has reported on the (slow) increase in US pre-clearance facilities, and it may be of value to revisit the last such report from 2016: US immigration pre-clearance: Dublin Airport's rapid growth has been supported by enhanced US access

At that time pre-clearance arrangements were already in place for flights from Canada, the Caribbean, one city in the Gulf, and in Europe from the two airports in Ireland.

Table of existing US immigration pre-clearance cities/airports, 2016

Country/region

Airport(s)

Canada

Calgary, Edmonton, Halifax, Montreal (Trudeau), Ottawa, Toronto, Vancouver, Winnipeg

Caribbean/Atlantic

Aruba, Bahamas (Freeport), Bahamas (Nassau), Bermuda

Ireland

Dublin, Shannon

Middle East

Abu Dhabi

Halifax and Abu Dhabi are the two most recent members of the arrangement, and 300 US airports may be accessed directly or indirectly via Customs and Border Protection (CBP) procedures.

The report went on to say that the initiative to encourage more of them had come from the Department whose job it is to keep the US secure from internal and external threats (Homeland Security), and that did suggest that counter-terrorism needs were driving the process at least as much as queues at US airports.

Indeed the DHS’s secretary at the time, Jeh Johnson, was quoted as saying, “I regard it as a homeland security imperative to build more (pre-clearance stations). To use a football metaphor, I’d much rather defend our end-zone from the 50-yard line than from our one-yard line. I want to take every opportunity we have to expand homeland security beyond our borders.”

There were other issues, too.

While many airports favoured these arrangements, there was evidence that passengers were not getting some of the benefits they might have expected. Also, that some airports simply weren’t keen on it.

Although it brings certain advantages, there are disadvantages as well: it is very expensive to introduce and there are space considerations. There is the operational practicality to consider, and a cost-benefit equation to be weighed carefully on each occasion.

The airlines have strong opinions on it, too.

US airlines were reported generally to be supportive of pre-clearance, not only in relation to providing a better customer experience, but also in relation to their utilisation of US airport infrastructure, since it provides more flexibility.

Their pilots don’t always see it the same way, and some US airlines and their pilots opposed Abu Dhabi being included because they believe it benefitted the United Arab Emirates’ airline Etihad Airways, which was the only airline to fly nonstop to the United States from Abu Dhabi.

The US Airline Pilots Association, ALPA, was especially critical, saying that it supported CBP pre-clearance sites, but only when they benefit the US economy and US workers.

The CBP facility at Abu Dhabi, it said, “does not pass this test.”

A further 10 airports invited to introduce pre-clearance

At the end of May-2015 ten airports in nine countries were selected to introduce pre-clearance with the US and to enter negotiations with their countries’ governments.

Ultimately, it was dependent on the response time of the Customs and Border Protection Department. All of the airports had more than 400,000 international passengers each year, which is the minimum requirement for this arrangement.

The countries and airports were:  

Country

Airport(s)

Belgium

Brussels

Dominican Republic

Punta Cana

Japan

Tokyo Narita

Netherlands

Amsterdam Schiphol

Norway

Oslo

Spain

Madrid Barajas

Sweden

Stockholm Arlanda

Turkey

Istanbul Ataturk

United Kingdom

London HeathrowManchester

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Interestingly, in Europe and further afield, many gateway airports had more North American seats weekly than most of the airports on the selected list.

Edinburgh formally joined the UK list later.

The scheme began as long ago as 1903 and for airports in 1952, but no new ones added recently...yet

It is a major enterprise for the CBP, which in 2019 pre-cleared 22 million travellers, representing more than 16% of all commercial air travellers to the United States, with more than 600 officers and agriculture specialists stationed abroad.

Nevertheless, it is still not a growing enterprise. As of Nov-2022, the same 15 pre-clearance locations in the same six countries as in the first table above remain the only ones.

None have been added; ergo Edinburgh could be the first.

That is quite remarkable, bearing in mind that pre-inspection, the precursor to pre-clearance, began as long ago as 1903 for boats from Canadian Pacific ports into the US, and pre-clearance of air passengers (from Toronto and Calgary) began in 1952.

In part two of this report CAPA will highlight that Edinburgh Airport has a low ratio of US seats due to the ongoing fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic, but that services should increase in number and frequency in 2023; that it should benefit from the increase in narrow body trans Atlantic flights.

Want More Analysis Like This?

CAPA Membership provides access to all news and analysis on the site, along with access to many areas of our comprehensive databases and toolsets.
Find Out More