Lifting of U.S. Travel Ban Normalizes Airline Ops, For Now
Airline passengers from Iraq, Iran, Syria, Libya, Somalia, Yemen and Sudan carrying valid visas or green cards again began entering the U.S. over the weekend following Friday night’s federal court reversal of the travel ban imposed by U.S. President Donald Trump on nationals from those seven countries. Emirates Airline, Etihad Airways and Qatar Airways all responded on February 4 to the decision from a federal judge in Seattle by booking legal permanent residents, visa holders and refugees on U.S.-bound flights from the UAE and Qatar. Lufthansa Airlines, Air France and Iberia Airways soon followed suit, allowing properly documented passengers to board flights from their European hubs.
In Abu Dhabi, where Etihad maintains its global hub, passengers have resumed passing through a U.S. Customs and Border Protection pre-clearance center under the same process in place before Trump’s January 27 executive order.
“Acceptance will naturally be subject to checks completed by U.S. authorities as existed prior to the issuance of the Executive Order on January 27,” said Etihad in a statement. “Etihad Airways continues to monitor developments in the U.S. and will work closely with the authorities and our guests as the situation evolves.”
On Sunday a federal appeals court denied an emergency request from the White House to issue a so-called stay of the judge’s order to resume the ban. The court has asked both sides to file legal briefs before it renders a final decision. The case heard by the federal court in Seattle had been filed by the state of Washington, which said that he took the action partly in order to defend the interests of leading local companies, including Boeing.
The Friday night order to block the ban appears to have restored some normalcy to airline operations following a period of confusion over contradictory information and ambiguous guidance from the Trump administration and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) over the executive order issued on January 27.
In a statement issued January 29, DHS said it was working closely with airline “partners” to prevent travelers targeted by the executive orders from boarding international flights to the U.S. However, it added that it would address green card holders on a “case-by-case” basis, leaving airlines in a position of uncertainty about whether or not to allow those passengers to board a given flight. Lack of clarity over the status of dual-nationality travelers holding citizenship of both the U.S. and one of the seven countries has also led to confusion, leading some airline personnel to turn a blind eye to any non-U.S. passports seen during the check-in process.
“As [DHS] Secretary [John] Kelly previously stated, in applying the provisions of the president’s executive order, the entry of lawful permanent residents is in the national interest,” said the statement. “Accordingly, absent significant derogatory information indicating a serious threat to public safety and welfare, lawful permanent resident status will be a dispositive factor in our case-by-case determinations.”
The guidance came amid criticism that the White House did nothing to alert the airlines of its plans before announcing the ban at 4:45 pm on January 27. The Trump administration insists that giving any advance notice would have resulted in “a flood” of people attempting to enter the U.S. before the orders took effect.
“Entry requirements for the United States were changed significantly and immediately by an executive order (EO) issued on 27 January 2017,” said the International Air Transport Association (IATA) in a statement released from its headquarters in Geneva. “The EO was issued without prior coordination or warning, causing confusion among both airlines and travelers. It also placed additional burdens on airlines to comply with unclear requirements, to bear implementation costs and to face potential penalties for non-compliance.”
An airline industry source speaking on the condition of anonymity told AIN that the first call to inform airlines of the procedures came from U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) on January 28, the day after the executive order took effect. At the time the airlines operated under what they construed as the intent of the executive order, which seemed to make clear that passengers with dual nationalities who carried a passport from one of the seven countries on the list could not enter the U.S. Similarly, it appeared to indicate that the ban would apply to permanent resident aliens holding so-called green cards.
Typically, in the case of security directives, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) holds a conference call with IATA and other industry stakeholders before any change takes place and clarifies any ambiguities in the order. IATA then places the relevant guidance into its Timatic database, where airline check-in staff, for example, can determine whether or not to ticket a passenger based on his or her visa information. Not all airlines use Timatic, however, and in those cases they rely on written notification.
If an agent or staff member incorrectly allows a passenger to board a flight, the government can require the airline to fly the person in question back to their point of origin and/or issue a fine.