By Andrew Newton, head of corporate travel at Direct Travel

LAST year it was announced that Edinburgh was among the 11 international airports being considered by the US Department of Homeland Security for the expansion of its customs pre-clearance programme. This initiative, which is already in place in six countries around the world including Dublin and Shannon Airports, enables travellers to undergo inspection by US Customs and Border Protection at their airport of origin before they board their flight to the United States. Once cleared they avoid having to endure what is frequently a lengthy customs queue at their American destination.

More than 18 million people went through the pre-clearance system around the world last year, representing 15 per cent of all commercial air travellers flying into the US.

Loading article content

One of the key issues to overcome before expanding this programme in other international destinations is whether it will be the airlines, and ultimately the travelling public, who are left to foot the bill for accommodating US security staff and their families. This potentially substantial expense is thought to be the reason behind Gatwick Airport’s decision not to participate in the programme. Heathrow Airport, which has also turned down the idea, is believed to have done so partly with the costs in mind but also due to the practical issues of bringing US immigration officers, who are typically armed while on duty, into Britain.

Despite these challenges, Edinburgh and Manchester airports appear to believe there is merit in the initiative and both are understood to be in talks with the US Government to explore it further before they determine whether it would be viable.

For the US Government, pre-clearance is beneficial as it prevents high-risk travellers from boarding a flight bound for the United States. It also reduces some of the high levels of customs congestion which are common at many American airports. For airlines flying into the States, it is also a welcome development as they tend to bear the responsibility for picking up the tab if one of their passengers fails a customs check within a US airport and then requires deportation.

As Scotland’s busiest airport and the sixth busiest in UK, Edinburgh Airport believes there is an opportunity here to further enhance its competitiveness. There will likely be a significant cost in introducing pre-boarding customs clearances but it can also see the potential of an economic uplift. While pre-clearance passengers would need to allocate time at the front end of their journey, the waiting time once they reach the US would be significantly reduced which can be critical for short business trips, especially those where there is a tight window for a connecting flight.

There are seven US airports which are currently serviced by direct flight routes from Edinburgh Airport. While this represents a small portion of the 130 destinations it covers overall, these are hugely significant routes as they offer accessibility between Scotland and the world’s biggest economy.

In the work we do for clients within some of Scotland’s key sectors including energy, financial services and food production, we are constantly reminded of the competitive benefits that are derived by having these direct routes in place. Providing it is financially viable, any initiative that makes life more efficient for travellers can only be beneficial for Scotland’s business community and its tourism sector.

The prospect of introducing US pre-clearance checks has the potential of making Edinburgh Airport an even more desirable departure point to the US. It is certainly an idea worthy of further exploration which could offer Scotland a competitive edge, especially important as we head towards a post-EU future.