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Sunday, June 13, 2004

Scotland on Sunday - Scotland - Pressure mounts over US immigration posts at Scots airports

Scotland on Sunday - Scotland - Pressure mounts over US immigration posts at Scots airports

US IMMIGRATION officers will be based at airports in Scotland to cut long delays for transatlantic passengers under a plan to be considered by authorities in the United States.

Tourism and business leaders believe more passengers would use the airports at Glasgow and Edinburgh to travel to the US if they could clear immigration before boarding their planes and avoid increasingly lengthy queues of up to 90 minutes at the American end.

Similar US outposts have been operating successfully in Ireland since 1986, and in Canada. Some Scots businessmen already fly to Dublin to use the US immigration posts there before flying on to America.

The US authorities are keen to act because the queues of travellers trying to get in to key US airports, such as Newark, near New York, and Atlanta, have lengthened dramatically because of heightened security following the September 11 terrorist attacks.

MSPs believe enough passengers are now travelling on direct flights to the US to justify setting up immigration posts in Scotland. Last Friday, Continental Airlines started daily flights between Edinburgh and Newark, adding to the current direct routes from Glasgow.

Kenny MacAskill, the SNP’s transport spokesman, has now written to First Minister Jack McConnell, urging him to start negotiations with the US government.

"It will mean that passengers from Scotland can be fast-tracked into the US," said MacAskill. "Instead of waiting in long queues to get in to the country, the whole process will be speeded up considerably if you can go through immigration procedures at this side.

"There will be big advantages for both business people and tourists, and both Glasgow and Edinburgh will be able to attract more customers from the north of England.

"I do not believe sovereignty is an issue because we have conceded the principle to the US before for military purposes."

US immigration posts were trialled at Shannon Airport in the west of Ireland in 1986, and the scheme was extended to Dublin in 1994. Passengers go through immigration at the Irish side and go through the US Citizens channel on disembarkation. Although they still have to go through US customs, lengthy and frustrating queues are avoided.

Airport officials in Ireland say the US immigration procedures can be contained within the normal two hour check-in time. A spokeswoman for Aer Rianta said: "The system has been in place for quite a while now and we have no problems with it. We simply provided the facility and the system works well."

Jack Munro, chief executive of the Edinburgh and Lothians Tourist Board, said: "We would be very supportive of the idea. If we had US immigration posts here it would encourage more people to use Scottish airports. More people would stay in Edinburgh and use the airport facilities. The same would happen in Glasgow."

The Scottish Council for Industry and Development said it would also support the initiative. Spokesman Ian Duff said: "If the Irish can do it, and in their case it seems to be working well, then there is no reason why we should not do it here, although there may be several issues to sort out."

The Scottish Tourism Forum said that as the number of direct flights was increasing it would be "sensible" to consider setting up immigration posts. "It will put Scotland on the map as a real gateway to Europe," said chief executive Alan Rankin.

A spokeswoman for the US embassy in London said a request from the Scottish Executive would be "considered. Obviously, there will be a lot of negotiations to go through".

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