Heathrow and Manchester airports have been shortlisted to become the only two UK airports to offer entry clearance to passengers travelling to the US before they even leave the UK. The plans were announced as part of a major expansion by the US of its pre-clearance operations.
Under the new system, passengers boarding direct flight to the US will now be able to undergo immigration, customs and agriculture inspection by US Customs & Border Protection prior to getting on the plane.
The facility is intended to cut passenger queues on arrival in the US, as well as helping to identify any threats before they reach US soil, thus boosting homeland security.
The two airports would join those of Dublin and Shannon, currently the only two bases in Europe offering such a service.
Jeh Johnson, Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), said the aim was to "push our homeland security out beyond our borders so that we are not defending the homeland from the one-yard line", adding that pre-clearance is also a "win-win" for the travelling public. "It provides aviation and homeland security, and it reduces wait times upon arrival at the busiest US airports", he said.
Some commentators have argued, however that similar facilities already in place in countries such as Canada, Ireland and the UAE are not cost effective, do not provide for a good passenger experience. There is also concern that the proposals concern predominantly countries that are intelligence allies of the US, with relatively low-risk airports and with aviation security that is just as strict, rendering them unnecessary.
According to the DHS, more than two-dozen airports expressed an interest in opening pre-clearance facilities. Those selected were identified as having the "greatest potential to support security and travel facilitation".
International hubs selected include Brussels Airport, Schiphol, Oslo Gardermoen, Madrid Barajas, Stockholm Arlanda and Istanbul Ataturk Airport.
Although Heathrow and Manchester made it onto the shortlist, the North Western airport is believed to be a step closer to accommodating the service, with a special fit-for-purpose terminal included in the £1 billion transformation project the airport announced on 2 June 2015.
The airport, which currently has 12 US routes and a further two planned for 2016 (Los Angeles and Boston), could, therefore, potentially become the only airport in the UK to have the facility. This would be a real boost for Manchester's appeal and is a big part of the development projects for the airport.
Charlie Cornish, chef executive of Manchester Airports Group, said: "If you look at Dublin pre-clearance it's worked really well and passengers numbers are growing through that facility. I expect to see the same in Manchester if not better."
Ken O'Toole, managing director of Manchester Airport, said the Group was "looking forward to working with both the UK and the US Governments in the coming months to ensure that Manchester remains a priority and is granted pre-clearance status."
However, despite such enthusiasm, should either airport receive the go-ahead to introduce US pre-clearance, it could take up to two years to implement the facility. Until that time, Homeland Security will have to continue defending itself mostly from the one-yard line.