International travel: pre-clearance hassle

May 27, 2015 – Alexandria, VA

Within the past month, I took a trip to Ireland and Spain to visit friends and family. While checking my luggage at Dublin Airport for my return trip to Washington, DC, the attendant informed me that I would be going through U.S. customs in Dublin.

“Excuse me,” I said, “so when I arrive in Washington, DC, I just get my luggage and walk out the door without showing anyone my passport or anything?”

“Yes, that’s right,” she answered.

I didn’t believe her, but it was true. Apparently, in late 2014 the U.S. started doing customs pre-clearance procedures in airports in a few select locations, including Canada, the Bahamas, Bermuda, Aruba, Ireland, and the United Arab Emirates. See http://www.cbp.gov/border-security/ports-entry/operations/preclearance.

I was informed that my luggage would not be loaded onto the plane until I had passed the pre-clearance area. The pre-clearance officers are U.S. Customs and Border Protection (U.S. CBP) employees (not a bad gig, living in Bermuda or Ireland). Once again, I’m reminded that I may have chosen the wrong line of work.

When I checked in with the U.S. CBP agent at the Dublin Airport, he showed me photos of my luggage, displayed on a screen, and asked whether it was mine (talk about Big Brother).

The U.S. CBP points out the advantages associated with the preclearance process. First, they indicate that it is proactive against threats. Now, I can obviously see the potential security benefits here. People are cleared for entrance into the U.S. before they even board the airplane. And if there is any concern about the individual traveling, his or her luggage is not placed in the airplane.

Second, they indicate that it achieves “the service goals of airports and air carriers, while improving the passenger experience.” Now, that is BS. Doing the pre-clearance in Ireland was such a hassle for me. Here’s why.

At first, I thought it would be a good thing not to have to wait in line at the customs area in DC after a transatlantic flight with a young kid, with everyone tired and hungry. However, having to do pre-clearance at an outbound location adds on a great deal of time to the pre-flight chaos. The CBP indicates that “preclearance doesn’t export queues – it helps to eliminate them.” It may eliminate the queue on the U.S. side, but it doesn’t have any effect on the overall time during which passengers have to queue for customs. In fact, we were treated as second-class citizens in Dublin. Upon heading to the (shorter) line for U.S. citizens, we were told that we had to be in the non-citizen line because we were traveling with a young child. Apparently, those in the U.S. citizen line can check their passports and complete customs procedures using automatic kiosks. We couldn’t use them. Why? The kiosks were too tall for children to use.

“Well, I’ll just pick him up to take his photo,” I suggested.

“No,” I was told.

So much for saving time. You just added additional time onto my pre-flight procedures. Thank you. I should add that this was after having already gone through two security checkpoints. I’m still not sure why this was, unless a second security check was necessary for U.S.-bound flights.

We had arrived at the Dublin airport exactly three hours prior to flight takeoff. When we got through pre-clearance customs, we had about thirty-five minutes until boarding. And everything had run relatively smoothly. The holdup was waiting in line.

The bottom line is, whereas the pre-clearance procedure may provide possible advantages regarding security (although this is yet to be seen), it creates another giant hassle for passengers. I would rather go through customs stateside, even after being exhausted from a long flight, than miss my outbound flight because I didn’t have enough time to get through two security lines and a pre-clearance section.

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