As anyone who has travelled from this part of the world to the US will tell you, it is rarely a pleasant experience. I don’t mean the 16-hour flight, or the service, or exiting the UAE – all of which are first class. It’s that very last bit. When you get to US customs.
Regardless of who you are (as a Bollywood superstar recently found out), US immigration like to treat everyone as a suspect. They are convinced you intend to permanently settle in the US or, in many cases, are visiting for more sinister reasons. It is not unusual for visitors to be taken aside and quizzed for hours before being let in.
That is all changing thanks to the fabulous pre-clearance system that Etihad Airways has introduced for US flights. It means that once you clear Abu Dhabi customs, you go straight to the US immigration desk. Far more polite and far quicker – in most cases, within a minute your passport is stamped and you are told “Welcome to the US”. On arrival, you go through a domestic channel meaning you are out of the airport within minutes.
Now it’s no surprise that Etihad’s rivals have been quick to claim this gives the airline an unfair advantage. Not so, because as the US ambassador to the UAE Michael Corbin told us this week, the system is being extended not just to other airlines flying to the US, but also to Dubai’s main airport.
What it does is make the UAE – and for now Etihad and Abu Dhabi – a much better way to fly to the US. It opens up a huge market from travellers from the Middle East and Asia, who are fed-up with the hassle of going through US customs on arrival in the US. Far better to connect through Abu Dhabi.
I was in Los Angeles last week and I’m planning to be back in December with my wife and three kids. For the first time ever, we didn’t even compare prices on airlines: as far as we are concerned, going through Etihad’s Abu Dhabi pre-clearance is the only option for hassle free travel. Etihad’s President James Hogan likes to talk about “game changers”. This definitely is one.