If You’ve Never Heard of the Freedoms of the Air, Here’s What They Are

I think it’s time to get educational. Anyone know what the Freedoms of the Air are? I’m guessing a lot of you don’t. You might not care either, but it’s actually kind of interesting and relevant to a post I’m writing later this week about Emirates. I figured it might be worth diving into a topic I haven’t touched here since the early days of the blog in 2006. What exactly are these so-called “freedoms”?

David Hasselhoff Freedom

It became clear in the early days of aviation that there had to be a system to determine which countries owned airspace and whether or not foreign airlines were allowed to fly in that space and ultimately land there. This framework was laid out in what today is known as the Chicago Convention. Signed in 1944, this went into effect in 1947. The basic premise is that each country owns its own airspace exclusively and airlines from other countries must have an agreement to use it. That agreement would document what level of freedom was agreed upon between two countries. It contained in writing the first five Freedoms of the Air with another four being considered de facto freedoms down the line. Here they are.

First Freedom of the Air
The most basic freedom is the right of an airline based in one country to fly through the airspace of another. For example, for JetBlue to fly from Seattle to Boston via Canadian airspace (it’s often faster that way), the US and Canada would have to have an agreement that allows first freedom access.

Second Freedom of the Air
The second freedom is the first that allows airlines to land in foreign territory, but only for a tech stop. That means you could land to refuel, perform maintenance, etc. You just can’t let any passengers on or off. So that same JetBlue flight might have an engine problem over Winnipeg. With a second freedom agreement between the US and Canada, JetBlue could land there to get it fixed up. Those onboard can only enjoy the view from the window.

Third Freedom of the Air
Now we finally get into the act of getting people from one country to another. The third freedom allows an airline to bring passengers from its home country to another country. So, Air China could fly passengers in an airplane from Beijing to Sydney if China and Australia have agreed to allow it. Air China, however, can’t bring those passengers back. That requires…

Fourth Freedom of the Air
This is just the reverse of the third freedom. An airline can bring passengers from a foreign country to its home country. In the above example, that means Air China could bring passengers from Sydney back to Beijing. I can’t think of an example where the third and fourth freedoms are separate. They come as a pair as far as I know.

Fifth Freedom of the Air
Now we get into the more interesting stuff; the freedoms that involve multiple countries. The fifth freedom is one of the most talked about. This allows an airline to bring passengers from one foreign country to another as long as the flight originates in the airline’s home country. There are plenty of examples of these kinds of flights. Think, Air New Zealand which flies from Auckland to LA and then on to London, or you can look at Cathay Pacific which flies from Hong Kong to Vancouver and then on to New York. Lastly, consider the hot topic of the day (and topic of a post later this week), Emirates which flies from Dubai to Milan and on to New York.

I have to believe that the origin of this freedom was to allow airlines to carry passengers to far away countries even if they had airplanes that couldn’t make it that far. This would allow them to stop for fuel but also to bring passengers on and off and make the flight more viable on such long distances. Like I said, we’ll talk more about this later this week.

The rest of the freedoms aren’t enshrined in the Chicago Convention, but they are generally accepted.

Sixth Freedom of the Air
The sixth freedom is a oddly-placed because it’s far more common than the fifth freedom. The idea here is that an airline can bring a passenger from one country to another via its home country. For example, if you live in Mexico and want to go to India, you can fly Lufthansa via its home country of Germany. This is very common throughout the world of air travel.

Seventh Freedom of the Air
Think of the seventh freedom as being like the fifth freedom but with no strings attached. As with the fifth freedom, this allows an airline from one country to carry passengers between two other countries. But the seventh freedom doesn’t require that the flight originate in the airline’s home country. Consider Ireland-based Ryanair which flies from Rome to Barcelona. That flight doesn’t have to continue on to Ireland since the seventh freedom exists for all carriers in the European Union.

Eighth Freedom of the Air
Now we get into the most rare of freedoms. The eight freedom is also called “consecutive cabotage.” This allows an airline to carry passengers wholly within another country as long as the flight originates in the airline’s home country. I’m trying to think of a real-life example and I’m not sure I have one. But, for example, UK-based easyJet flies from Paris to Nice, within France. If there was only an eighth freedom agreement, then that flight would have to start in the UK. But instead, easyJet can rely on the next one…

Ninth Freedom of the Air
That brings us to the ninth freedom, real cabotage, which is the unrestricted ability to carry passengers between two points in a single country. This exists within all European Union countries today, and it’s why easyJet can fly passengers from Paris to Nice without having the airplane do anything else.

In the US, no foreign airline is allowed to fly passengers between two points. Sure, Qantas flies passengers from JFK to LA but only if they go on to Australia. That’s just a second freedom right. While many argue that cabotage in the US would bring in all kinds of luxury carriers from foreign lands, I can’t imagine that to be true. If it happened, they’d be out of business quickly. Still, I wish the market was allowed to decide. Open up those doors…

There you have it. Those are the freedoms of the air. We’ll talk more about the fifth freedom and Emirates shortly.

[Original image via Jaguar PS / Shutterstock.com]

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