Airline pilots, flight attendants, an industry trade group, and U.S. lawmakers were in Philadelphia on Wednesday to protest a decision by the Department of Homeland Security to open a U.S. Customs preclearance facility in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates.

U.S. Rep. Patrick Meehan (R., Pa.) has cosponsored legislation signed by 120 lawmakers, including Reps. James Gerlach (R., Pa.) and Robert Brady (D., Pa.), that would block funding for the facility the Emirates government has agreed to build. It would allow passengers traveling to the United States to clear Customs before boarding flights.

The controversy is whether Homeland Security should staff preclearance services at an international airport not served by a U.S. airline.

Airlines for America, an industry trade group, joined others at Philadelphia International Airport in contending that the Customs facility would give a competitive advantage to the only carrier that flies to the United States from Abu Dhabi - the state-owned and state-subsidized Etihad Airways.

In April, the Obama administration signed an agreement with the Emirates to open the Customs facility.

In July, a representative of U.S. Customs and Border Protection told a House Foreign Affairs subcommittee on terrorism that the preclearance facility would help prevent "terrorists, illicit cargo, and other national-security threats" from gaining access to flights to the United States.

Acting Deputy Commissioner Kevin McAleenan said Abu Dhabi ranked among the top 10 origination airports for travelers who were "positive matches" to a terrorist-screening database.

But U.S. airlines and their employee unions see the facility as a threat to competition for international customers. Legislation sponsored by Meehan and Rep. Peter DeFazio (D., Ore.) said the preclearance facility would "incentivize passengers to route themselves through Abu Dhabi on Etihad rather than routes served by U.S. carriers" elsewhere in the Middle East.

Opponents say the money would be better spent to fully staff Customs at U.S. airports, where long waits at peak travel times cause many travelers to miss connections.

U.S. Customs operations are partially financed by airlines and passengers through user fees.

"Right now, U.S. citizens returning and visitors coming to the United States have wait times of one to four hours or more" at Dallas, Miami, Chicago, Los Angeles, and New York airports, said Nick Calio, president of Airlines for America.

The wait to clear Customs at Philadelphia's airport is usually less than 60 minutes.

"Our motto has been, 'Fix it here first,' " Calio said.

"Abu Dhabi cut a deal with Customs," Meehan said, noting that the "pay-to-play" scheme sets a bad precedent.

Capt. Lee Moak, national president of the 50,000-member Air Line Pilots Association, said: "It's clear from the billions of dollars in aircraft orders at the Dubai Air Show by foreign airlines, and new routes such as Qatar Airways announced would begin in 2014 between Doha and Philadelphia, that foreign airlines pose serious economic competition to U.S. airline companies."

"It's one thing to compete with a state-owned airline," Moak said. "It's another thing to compete with a state-owned enterprise that is subsidized by our own government.

"We need a level playing field."

BY THE NUMBERS

600

Passengers a day who travel through Abu Dhabi en route to the United States.

$1.5B

Annual user fees that partially fund Customs clearance at U.S. airports.

15

Preclearance facilities staffed by

U.S. Customs

outside the country.

5.6M

Passengers whom Customs and Border Protection processed in fiscal 2012 at international preclearance sites for entry into the U.S.

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