US Customs & Border Protection is spreading its wings. The agency last week announced that Stockholm’s Arlanda Airport will be the next location for its preclearance border control processing. The Swedish government agreed to the proposal and, following the completion of legal requirements, construction is expected to begin on the facility that could service passengers by 2019. In making the announcement, the US Department of Homeland Security also indicated that 11 other airports – Bogota, Buenos Aires, Edinburgh, Kansai (Osaka), Mexico City, Milan, Reykjavik, Rio de Janeiro, Rome, Sao Paolo and Saint Martin – are in negotiations to join the program. And it is unclear whether any of this is really good news for travelers.
For DHS the program is all about identifying threats well before they set foot on American soil. But the impact to the travel experience can be rather negative. Frequent travelers, the folks who are most likely to use the preclearance facilities, are also the most likely to take advantage of the premium services offered in an airport terminal – the same services which are far less commonly offered in a pre-clearance facility. It means less time in a lounge, for example. Even Dublin, one of the longer-participating airports in the preclearance program, only opened a premium lounge for travelers inside the preclearance waiting area just this past summer. And that’s in a facility that handles one million US-bound passengers over the year, the fifth highest in Europe. Abu Dhabi’s controversial preclearance facility opened with virtually no facilities on offer; a lounge opened in that space in 2015. And these are the passengers the airlines typically work to woo. They are the ones to whom airlines offer premium services on the ground. They are the ones the airlines will now be hampered in fawning over. At a minimum, the costs to do such go up.
Arlanda sees only about 600,000 passengers annually (~1,600/day) flying direct to the United States. This is around double the number from Bermuda so there is precedence for operating preclearance at airports of relatively low passenger volume. But these passengers will predominantly travel on SAS or Norwegian, not on US-based carriers. United and Delta have offered service in the past but currently neither offers year-round flights. The Abu Dhabi facility was controversial for its service of only non-US carriers, and current US policy appears to look down on Norwegian as much as it does Etihad Airways, a scenario that could see the Arlanda facility similarly contested.
Keflavik will handle more than 6 million passengers in 2016 with more than a third passing between Europe and North America. The current airport facility is undersized and offers limited amenities once passengers leave the core area where Schengen flights operate from. With both Icelandair and WOW Air continuing significant growth into North America, the number of travelers will surely increase. By building out new facilities dedicated to these passengers, the airport can solve some of its capacity challenges and meet the screening requirements at the same time.
In Saint Martin, passenger numbers are on the lower end of the scale but the country is keen to increase its tourism feed from the US and adding this facility would support that effort. Also, much like Keflavik, the airport terminal needs to grow to support additional traffic so a preclearance facility could work well on that front.
Rome keeps US-bound flights segregated already; adding preclearance at that facility would be relatively easy. But traffic is far more seasonal today than in the past and the total volume may not support the investment. Similarly, the faltering Brazilian economy could hamper efforts there, both for the costs of the necessary investments and the significant decrease in flights and passengers the country has to the United States.
It also is worth noting that this is not the first time that DHS has released a list of airports seeking to join the preclearance program. In May 2015, ten potential airports were identified. Only two of those ten – Arlanda and Mexico City – are part of the 2016 batch of airports. The ever-shifting collection of potential participants raises some questions about just what is the investment to secure the service, and what is the benefit to travelers and the airports in terms of realizing value for that investment.