What Are Fifth Freedom Flights and the Freedoms of the Air?

What Are Fifth Freedom Flights and the Freedoms of the Air?

If asked what airlines you can book between, let’s say New York in the United States and Vancouver in Canada, one would likely mention one or more of the major US airlines like United as well as the Canadian flag carrier, Air Canada.

Did you know, though, that you can also fly between the two cities with Philippine Airlines and Hong Kong’s Cathay Pacific on their fifth freedom flights?

Fifth freedom flights are flights where an airline from one country has the right to carry passengers between two other countries as an extension of a flight from its home country.

Freedoms of the Air and Fifth Freedom Rights

The freedoms of the air are a set of rights based on which countries grant each other access to either their airspace or their passenger and cargo air transportation market. There are five official freedoms of the air which were established in 1944 in the Chicago Convention.

Those include:

  • First freedom: Gives an airline the right to fly over a foreign country without landing there. (e.g. a Japan Airlines flight flying over Russia on its way from Tokyo to Frankfurt)
  • Second freedom: Gives an airline the right to make a technical stop in a foreign country without allowing any passengers to finish or start their journey there. (e.g. a British Airways flight from London City to New York making a refueling stop in Ireland)
  • Third freedom: Gives an airline the right to fly from its own country to a foreign country. (e.g. a United Airlines flight from New York to Paris)
  • Fourth freedom: Gives an airline the right to fly from a foreign country to its own country. (e.g. a United Airlines flight from Paris to New York)
  • Fifth freedom: Gives an airline the right to fly between two foreign countries assuming the flight originates in the airline’s own country. (e.g. a Cathay Pacific Airways flight from Vancouver to New York which is a continuation of its flight from Hong Kong)
Cathay Pacific's Fifth Freedom Flight from Vancouver to New York
Cathay Pacific’s flight from Vancouver to New York is an example of a fifth freedom flight.

Quite obviously, the first four rights form the basis of international air travel as they allow airlines to fly between their own country and a foreign country while overflying and making technical stops in other countries along the way.

As for the fifth freedom, it is not critical for international air travel, but it often helps airlines justify flying to destinations where they otherwise couldn’t due to economic reasons. In other words, it allows them not only to fly from their home country to a foreign country, but also from there to a different foreign country. All that while being able to make incremental revenue from transporting passengers traveling just between the two foreign countries.

Here it’s also important to note that, as mentioned above, for a flight to be a “fifth freedom flight,” the airline has to have the right to transport passengers on the foreign segment.

So, for example, while Air China flies from Beijing to Minsk to Budapest, the Minsk to Budapest segment is not a fifth freedom flight as passengers cannot buy a ticket just for the Minsk to Budapest segment. Instead they can only buy tickets from Beijing to Minsk or Beijing to Budapest.

Air China Not Fifth Freedom Flight
Air China flies between Minsk and Budapest, but cannot transport passengers solely on that route – as such, it’s not a fifth freedom flight.

Besides the above five, there are also other “unofficial” freedoms of the air such as the sixth freedom also known as cabotage, but for the purpose of the article, understanding the first five should be more than sufficient.

Why Are Fifth Freedom Flights Worth Considering?

If you can fly an airline of either of the countries you are traveling with, why bother with fifth freedom flights, you might ask. Personally, I find fifth freedom flights worth considering for the three reasons below.

First, fifth freedom flights can be cheaper than flights operated by carriers based in the countries you are flying between. While this is not always the case, especially when low cost airlines are taken into account, you will often find these flights to be very competitively priced as compared with the “local” full service carriers operating the route.

For example, take the Frankfurt – Madrid route. Chile-based LATAM oftentimes offers flights on the route for less than Lufthansa or Iberia.

Second, fifth freedom flights are often operated by aircraft equipped better than their “local” counterparts. The reason for that is simple – in many cases, the flights are a short extension of an otherwise long flight. And, as such, while the “local” airlines use smaller aircraft in regional configuration, the airlines on the foreign airlines use their long-haul aircraft.

Cathay Pacific First Class Seat
Hong Kong’s Cathay Pacific likely offers the best seat between any two North American cities.

Once again, take the Frankfurt – Madrid route mentioned above. While with Lufthansa or Iberia, you would find yourself on a small aircraft with no in-flight entertainment screen, with LATAM you would be able to enjoy an individual screen on the flight.

In case you are flying business class, the difference would be even greater, since you would be able to enjoy a flat bed seat instead of the European “business class seat” which is basically an economy class seat with an empty seat next to it.

Finally, fifth freedom flights allow you to briefly experience the culture of the country the airline is from. While it is by no means equal to traveling to the country where the airline is from, everything from the aircraft’s livery and cabin design, crew uniforms, all the way to crew announcements will give you a glimpse of the country where the airline is from.

Now, given that I’m an aviation enthusiast, the third reason is by far my favorite one together with the fact that fifth freedom flights allow me to try an airline that I might not otherwise have a chance to fly on.

In spite of the above, there is one big disadvantage to taking a fifth freedom flight: the lack of frequency. The fact that these flights are often a continuation of a long-haul service means that there is usually just one flight a day (or even less). This might be an issue if you need to get somewhere on a specific day or at a specific time. And, it might cause additional issues when it comes to rebooking in case of a flight cancellation.

Fifth Freedom Flights Around the World

I will not be listing all the fifth freedom flights out there here since Fly Pointy End and The Full Gull do a great job with that. Instead, I will just list a couple of my favorite flights:

  • LATAM’s Frankfurt – Madrid: More than 10 years ago, this was the first fifth freedom flight I’ve ever taken. Back then it was operated by an Airbus A340-300, and now it’s operated by Boeing 787. This is probably the best way to experience a South American airline without actually going to South America.
  • Singapore Airlines’s Tokyo – Los Angeles: A great option, and often one of the cheapest ones, to fly between the Japanese capital and California on what is considered to be one of the world’s best airlines.
  • KLM’s Kuala Lumpur – Jakarta: A nice way to experience a European airline within Southeast Asia. Especially so, if you fly in business class, since you will be able to get KLM’s famous Delft Houses.
  • Cathay Pacific’s Vancouver – New York: There’s likely no better way to travel coast-to-coast in America than flying in Cathay Pacific’s first class. Even in the other classes, it should still offer a better experience than most of the other options on that route.
  • Pakistan International’s Tokyo – Beijing: Maybe this airline is not on most people’s list of airlines to fly, but for aviation enthusiasts, this is an excellent way to try an exotic airline. In the past the flight used to be operated by an Airbus A310 (I had an interesting experience on the flight), and now it’s operated by a Boeing 777-200ER.

Summary

While fifth freedom flights – flights operated by two countries by an airline that is based in another country – are not for everyone, they are certainly worth considering in the right circumstances.

If you simply need to get to some place, then they are worth looking at since they often tend to be cheaper than flights operated by “local” airlines and often also offer more comfortable aircraft to travel on.

If you are an aviation enthusiast or enjoy experiencing other cultures, fifth freedom flights are worth considering because of the fact that you might be able to get a brief experience of a far-away culture or to fly on an airline you would not otherwise fly on.


Three tips before you get on the road...

For your convenience: Price comparison sites

When searching for flights and accommodation, use comparison sites that will summarize prices from a variety of sources including the airline sites and online travel agencies for you. I recommend HotelsCombined for comparing hotel prices and Momondo for comparing flight prices.

For your comfort: Unlimited airport lounge access

If you generally fly in economy class and don’t have an airline status, I recommend considering a Priority Pass Prestige membership which will give you unlimited access to over 1,200 lounges at more than 500 airports all over the world.

For your peace of mind: Travel insurance

Make sure you have adequate insurance coverage - whether through your credit card or through insurance policy purchased separately. This will help save your trip when you get sick or things stolen on the road, in other words, when things go wrong. In case you didn't get your travel insurance yet, I recommend getting a free quote from World Nomads.

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