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Abu Dhabi US Preclearance Process

The new Terminal A at Zayed International Airport (AUH) in Abu Dhabi opened to much fanfare in October 2023. Included in this new terminal was a brand new Etihad First Class Lounge, which opened in November 2023. However, despite all the glowing reviews online, key details are always missing. The majority of flights to the USA are not operated from the new Terminal A and the entire experience is miserable. In short, the whole experience gets two thumbs down until these Abu Dhabi US preclearance process issues are resolved.

RELATED: Etihad Airways restricts award flights booked with partners.

The Airport Backstory

Zayed International Airport is the only airport in the Middle East that features US immigration clearance on departure. While this allows you a faster and simpler arrival in the USA, it adds to more hurdles when departing. Currently, only select flights to the USA are eligible for US immigration clearance at AUH, including:

  • Flight EY101 to New York (departure time 10:10 a.m.)
  • Flight EY3 to New York (Beginning March 31, 2024)
  • Flight EY131 to Washington (departure time 10:45 a.m.)

The Abu Dhabi US immigration preclearance only occurs in the old terminal (i.e. not Terminal A with the new Etihad First Class Lounge).

Terminal A & Premium Cabin Departures

For starters, the new Terminal A is absolutely stunning. Broad, sweeping architecture and gigantic space makes the entire place seem other-worldy. Business and First class passengers have a separate drop-off area and a dedicated Terminal entrance.

Abu Dhabi US Preclearance Process

Once inside, First class and Business class passengers have separate check-in desks. For First class, the check-in area is private. This process was seamless and we were through check-in, passport scans, and the initial security screening in 5 minutes or less. We were informed that the Etihad First class lounge was a 10 minute walk, or less.

etihad first class lounge
Private area for First class checkin

Within 5 minutes, we arrived at the lounge, which is located near gate C36. The Business class and First class lounges are in the same area, but with different entrances. While this is not a full review of the First class lounge, the space was quite nice. I would not, however, compare it to either Qatar's First Class lounge, Al Safwa, or Lufthansa's First class terminal in Frankfurt. Both of those options are considerably nicer and more spacious.

Abu Dhabi US Preclearance Process
Etihad First class lounge

There is ample seating, a la carte dining, and gigantic bathrooms with private showers.

Abu Dhabi US Preclearance Process

However, that is where the warm and fuzzies ends, at least for those flights to the USA subject to Abu Dhabi's US Immigration preclearance.

US Immigration Preclearance Process Issues

While pitched as a “benefit” and a “perk,” US Immigration preclearance at Abu Dhabi is a nightmare for premium class passengers. As mentioned before, US Immigration preclearance does not operate in Terminal A, where the Etihad First class lounge is located. If you are on EY 101 or EY 3 (beginning March 31, 2024) to New York or EY 131 to Washington, D.C., this whole process is very frustrating.

The US Preclearance Process

As listed on Etihad Airways' website, the procedure for passengers subject to US Immigration preclearance must arrive to the airport (i.e. Terminal A) 4+ hours in advance of your flight. You then proceed to F Gates 2 hours prior to departure and are bussed to the old terminal. This bus ride took around 10 minutes. Upon arrival at the old terminal, we realized this is a ghost terminal. The A/C was barely working, if at all, and it was blazing hot. The terminal is essentially shuttered, except for the few Etihad flights mentioned above.

etihad first class lounge

Our Abu Dhabi US Preclearance Experience

We proceeded through a full TSA screening, aided by Global Entry, and finished that process in 10 minutes or so. At that point, our only option was a shared lounge for Business and First class for all departing passengers. At 9 a.m., that included both the New York and Washington flights. As this was a tiny lounge anyway, it was packed and essentially standing room only. Again, there was minimal or no A/C and it was stifling hot. This is a far cry from the new Etihad First class lounge in Terminal A.

etihad first class lounge

What is so frustrating about this Abu Dhabi US preclearance experience is that you are bussed to the old terminal two hours before your flight. This means passengers to New York must leave the Etihad First class lounge by ~7:50 a.m. and passengers to D.C. by ~8:30 a.m. This leaves little time for a la carte dining in the lounge, unless you decide to arrive at the airport before 6:30 a.m. Frankly, few people on flights to JFK or IAD can take advantage of this lounge, which explains why no one was in the Etihad First class lounge when we arrived. If I had paid $10,000+ cash for a First class ticket, I would be enraged over this whole process.

Abu Dhabi US Preclearance Process Issues- ToP Thoughts

While clearing customs on departure is nice, the process is extremely frustrating for Etihad premium cabin passengers to New York and Washington. Leaving the comfort of the Etihad First class lounge in Terminal A for a bus ride, a ghost terminal with no A/C, and a sub-par lounge experience is not fun. I can only imagine that this process will change soon, as the costs to keep the old terminal somewhat open for only a few flights per day must be exorbitant. Hopefully, Abu Dhabi US Immigration preclearance moves to Terminal A soon and this is all a bad dream.

Have you experienced the Etihad First class lounge at AUH? Do you have questions about the process when flying to the USA? Come over to our Facebook group and let us know.

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