Plans to station armed US immigration enforcement officers at UK airports could result in higher air fares and additional security checks for British holidaymakers heading to America, as well as those travelling to the US on visas such as the E2 Treaty Investor, L1 visa, or Green Cards. Transatlantic passengers face immigration pre-clearance checks before boarding a flight, with the new procedures currently being discussed by Washington and Whitehall officials.
The move could see airlines forced to pay for US security staff, plus their families, to live in the UK. It’s likely that the additional cost of hosting US immigration officers will be passed on to passengers travelling to the States from the UK.
To pass through stringent security checks, passengers will likely be asked to give themselves more time when heading to the airport to catch flights. It’s understood that two UK airports, Edinburgh and Manchester, are interested in joining the programme which resembles US pre-clearance checks currently in operation at Dublin and Shannon airports in Ireland.
UK government approval needed
A Home Office official said: “Discussions are ongoing with the US. The US government negotiates with airports directly as each airport would need to adapt its operations accordingly. However, the introduction of pre-clearance operations would also require approval from the UK government.”
The plans could take upwards of five years to be introduced and raise questions as to whether US immigration officers would be armed, which is usual in the States.
John Kelly, the US Secretary of Homeland Security, along with his predecessor, Jeh Johnson, have both been advocates of pre-clearing immigration procedures in the UK. They believe it will improve flight security and shorten waiting times at arrival terminals.
Besides Ireland, the procedure is in place across five other countries, and enables passengers flying to the US to avoid lengthy queues at US immigration border control, once they’ve landed in America.
The process involves enforcement personnel checking travel documents, passports, visas and making sure that passengers adhere to strict customs rules at UK airports prior to boarding flights.
Costs passed to passengers
An industry source said: “The US is much more concerned with getting pre-clearance granted by the British government than they are with having their officers walking around like they do back in the States. The real question is who’s going to pay? The US wants airports to pay. They’ll say ‘ok,’ but they will cover the cost by increasing air fares.”
However, the source said that if airlines are not prepared to cover the cost, the plans might never happen. The changes could see part of UK airport terminals sealed off for US security checks.
A spokesperson for the Airport Operators Association said: “Airports are always on the lookout for ways to improve the service and security provided to passengers. Pre-clearing US immigration in the UK is one way to speed up the custom’s process, reducing waiting times at US airports to pass through border control.”
The spokesperson added that a number of obstacles would need to be overcome, with several practical issues to address in order to make the plans work. Currently, the US has over 600 law enforcement staff stationed at 15 locations in six countries around the world.
In Ireland, pre-clearance procedures began in 2008, with 1.18 million people processed in Dublin and 204,000 people in Shannon.