Monday, April 15, 2013

Plans for customs checkpoint in Middle East questioned

Story originally appeared on USA Today.

A proposed shortcut through customs in the Middle East remains contentious in Congress, as airport security lines get longer at home with spending cuts.

At a House Appropriations subcommittee hearing Thursday on the Department of Homeland Security, two lawmakers voiced opposition to a proposal to set up a customs checkpoint in Abu Dhabi.

DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano explained that the goal is to push the U.S. border farther out, to protect against terrorism. Similar checkpoints are already established in Ireland, Canada and the Caribbean.

"We believe it is better for the security of our country to push our borders out," Napolitano said. "Why the Middle East? For obvious reasons. For tactical and strategic concerns, it's much better for us to do our work overseas than here."

But the proposal -- which would also help travelers avoid long lines in the U.S. -- has long drawn opposition from U.S. airlines and pilots because it is viewed as an advantage for foreign-owned airlines such as Etihad because no U.S. airlines have direct flights to Abu Dhabi.

A provision tucked into the current federal spending law prevents any third-party reimbursement for such customs facilities, although that policy could change when spending legislation is approved for the year starting Oct. 1.

"The administration needs to get behind U.S. airlines and U.S. workers by immediately dropping this flawed proposal," said Capt. Lee Moak, president of Air Line Pilots Association, a union with 51,000 members, who sent Napolitano a letter last week opposing the proposal.

Nicholas Calio, president of the trade group Airlines for America, also argued against the checkpoint Wednesday as an incentive for the department "to shift its sources to funding to those with the deepest pockets rather than addressing the greatest need."

At the hearing, the chairman of the full committee, Rep. Hal Rogers, R-Ky., said he would prefer to shorten customs lines that are several hours long in Miami.

"It's going to cause some real economic difficulties for the country because the waiting times are just unacceptable," Rogers said.

Rep. John Culberson, R-Texas, also asked why she would create a facility benefiting foreign airlines while staffing is needed in Houston.

"What's the logic?" he asked.

Napolitano said the government would be reimbursed for the Abu Dhabi station, so it wouldn't cost taxpayers anything. She said President Obama's budget would allow reimbursement for customs checkpoints, with the first in the United Arab Emirates and the second perhaps in Dubai.

"Compared to what Miami needs, it's a drop in the bucket," Napolitano said. "I agree with you we have a personnel shortage."

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