The new pre-clearance agreement between Shannon airport and the US authorities will be a key selling point for BA’s forthcoming London City to New York JFK service.

BA will be plying the route with new Airbus A318 aircraft (the largest aircraft type currently allowed to use London City airport), which will require a 45-minute refuelling stop at Shannon on the outbound journey. But what from one point of view might seem a time-consuming addition to the first transatlantic service from London City, may actually prove to be an advantage for business travellers.

Shannon and Dublin airports (both managed by the Dublin Airport Authority) have had an agreement in place since 1986 allowing US-bound travellers to clear immigration before departing Ireland, but up until now this did not include customs and agriculture inspections, so passengers still faced queues upon arrival in the US.

But the addition of full Customs and Border Protection (CBP) facilities at Shannon means that as of August 5, passengers can now avail of full pre-clearance at the airport, allowing them to effectively arrive in the US as a domestic passenger, thus avoiding the infamously-lengthly US immigration process.

Shannon has the distinction of being the first airport outside the US, Canada and Aruba to offer the facilities – even its bigger sister airport Dublin International will not offer pre-clearance until the new Terminal 2 is completed in 2010.

Continental passengers on flight CO25 to New York Newark were the first to use the new facilities on August 5, and US Airways and Delta customers have since started benefitting from the service.

But despite the new agreement Shannon faces a challenge persuading airlines to use its facilities for transatlantic services. Delta is soon to drop its US service from the airport (to New York) for the winter schedule, and Aer Lingus is not currently using the pre-clearance facilities as the Irish carrier flies to the US from both Shannon and Dublin, which would cause an operational headache were the airline to offer differing immigration facilities at the two airports.

The Mayor of Shannon this week appealed to Delta to reconsider its pullout of the airport, saying that “the American carrier’s basis for ending the 13-year-old service did not stand up”.

“The airline claimed that low yield factors had determined its decision to end the service,” said Mayor Sean McLoughlin. “However, the service carried 30,000 passengers last winter alone. Furthermore, the number of persons using the service has dramatically increased in recent weeks. One flight this weekend, for example, was operating at full capacity. Much of these increases can be attributed to the introduction of pre-clearance facilities at Shannon and the airline’s decision to lower its fares.

“Aer Lingus’s announcement that it will not be utilising the US pre-clearance facilities until mid-2010 at the earliest, along with the imminent withdrawal of Delta’s long standing service and ongoing doubts over the future of Aer Lingus’s Shannon to New York service have completely undermined efforts at Shannon Airport to develop new business. The opportunities presented to airlines by the presence of the pre-clearance facilities are numerous but appear to be having little impact on business growth at the airport at present.”

McLoughlin has suggested that the airport should introduce an additional landing charge incentive scheme in a bid to boost transatlantic traffic and attract new operators.

Nevertheless the pre-clearance facilities at Shannon has evidently been enough to persuade BA to route its new London City to New York JFK service via the Irish airport, with twice-daily flights commencing on September 29.

The airline has started sending out teaser emails to customers booked on its new service, in which customer experience Chris Stubbs reports that it took less than twenty minutes to pass through Shannon’s security and passport check and be back in his seat during a recent test flight. If BA can replicate this sort of service when the flight launches for real later this month, then the days of the dreaded US immigration process may finally be over, at least for a privileged few.

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