Is US customs & immigration pre-clearance coming to London Heathrow airport?

There has been much interest following an announcement by the US Department for Homeland Security that it is exploring adding US pre-clearance facilities at 10 new airports worldwide.

These airports include London Heathrow and Manchester airport.

Dublin and Shannon airports are the only in Europe to have US pre-clearance facilities and is a key reason behind International Airlines Group’s bid for Aer Lingus.

Put simply, the benefit of pre-clearance is that passengers clear US customs and immigration at a dedicated facility before boarding the aircraft.

On arrival in the US, the flight is treated in the same way as a domestic flight would and passengers can disembark the aircraft and immediately make their way out of the airport, with no further checks.

Anyone who has experienced immigration queues at the likes of New York JFK and Miami airports can testify to the benefits for passengers.

So will pre-clearance come to London Heathrow?

We hope so. However, there are some challenges.

Currently, transatlantic flights depart from four different terminals (Terminal 2 for United, Terminal 3 for American Airlines, Delta and Virgin Altantic, Terminal 4 for Delta, and Terminal 5 for British Airways).

It would not be feasible (nor desired on the part of the airlines) for all transatlantic flights to depart from one terminal, so each terminal would require its own pre-clearance facilities.

Any attempt to limit pre-clearance facilities to one terminal at London Heathrow is likely to be strongly resisted by those airlines whose passengers would not benefit from pre-clearance.

There is also the amount of available space for pre-clearance facilities. The transatlantic market is by far Heathrow’s biggest long-haul market. There are nearly 30 flights a day from London Heathrow to New York alone. Any facility will have to be of a considerable size to be worthwhile for passengers and compatible with efficient airport operations.

Heathrow airport also receives considerable income from letting terminal space to retailers and is likely to want to be compensated for any loss of income as a result of retail space being sacrificed to make way for pre-clearance facilities. Any attempt by Heathrow airport to be compensated through higher charges to airlines is likely to be strongly resisted by them.

So, many challenges and given the amount of work involved, pre-clearance (if it happens) is likely to be many years away.

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