The Freedoms of the Air

Government Regulation
When I get into dork mode, I often start speaking in crazy airline language that few of my friends understand. One of the things that has confused many a person over the years is my reference to the Freedoms of the Air. So for those people who look at me funny when I talk about the Fifth Freedom, for example, I’ve put together a primer on all the Freedoms.

First, a little background. The Freedoms apply to air travel by an airline in one country that is looking to operate in a second country. When the rules were created back in the 1940’s, there were five main Freedoms that have since unofficially expanded to nine Freedoms. If you’d like to read them in their official language, you can visit the ICAO here.

First Freedom of the Air

  • This most basic right allows airlines from Country A to fly through Country B’s airspace without landing.
  • Example: An American Airlines flight from the US to somewhere in South America would be permitted to fly through Mexico’s airspace to get there

Second Freedom of the Air

  • This also basic right allows airlines from Country A to land in Country B for purposes of refueling, maintenance, etc as long it doesn’t involve deplaning or enplaning of passengers
  • Example: A South African Airways flight from the US to South Africa could stop in the Cape Verde Islands to refuel but no passengers could get on or off (this isn’t true, it’s just for demonstration purposes)

Third Freedom of the Air

  • This allows airlines from Country A to bring passengers originating in Country A to Country B
  • Example: A United Airlines flight from the US to Australia could bring passengers originating in the US down to Australia

Fourth Freedom of the Air

  • This allows airlines from Country A to bring passengers originating in Country B to Country A
  • Example: Using the same United Airlines flight, they could bring passengers originating in Australia up to the US

Fifth Freedom of the Air

  • This allows airlines from Country A to bring passengers between Country B and Country C as long as the flight originates in Country A
  • Example: Air New Zealand, based in New Zealand, is allowed to fly passengers between Los Angeles (US) and London (UK) because the flight originates in Auckland (New Zealand)

The rest of the freedoms are unofficial, as I mentioned before, but they are generally understood throughout the industry.

Sixth Freedom of the Air

  • This allows airlines from Country A to carry passengers between Countries B and C via Country A
  • Example: British Airways would be allowed to carry passengers between India and the US via its UK home

Seventh Freedom of the Air

  • This is similar to the Fifth Freedom, but it allows an airline from Country A to carry passengers between Countries B and C without having it be an extension of a flight from Country A
  • Example: If Air New Zealand started flights between Vancouver and Rio de Janeiro with no ongoing service to New Zealand, that would use Seventh Freedom rights.

Eighth Freedom of the Air

  • This is called “consecutive cabotage,” and it allows an airline from Country A to carry passengers between two points in Country B as long as the flight originates in Country A or a third Country C
  • Example: Air Canada could fly between Chicago and Los Angeles, both in the US, if the flight started in Toronto or any other place outside of the United States

Ninth Freedom of the Air

  • This one is usually referred to as “cabotage,” and it allows an airline from Country A to carry passengers within Country B without restriction
  • Example: The EU has been pushing the US to allow cabotage. This would allow EU airlines, like Lufthansa for example, the fly regular domestic routes in the US. As you can imagine, this won’t be happening soon.

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12 comments on “The Freedoms of the Air

  1. So what does this mean for the everyday flier? Do all airlines follow these freedoms? I mean, like you said, that last one doesn’t necessarily apply in the US. We don’t allow foreign airlines to fly domestic routes unless it’s a continuation.

  2. Well, it means more choices really. Granted, it is not all that apparent.

    One of my favorite fifth freedom flights is SQ 26, the Singapore Air flight from Frankfurt – JFK. It is actually SIN-FRA-JFK but you can just pick-up the FRA-JFK flight.

    Once I found myself in London and instead of taking LH or UA I opted to spend a few days in Cologne before making my way to Frankfurt and picking-up the SQ flight to JFK.

    (Coincidentally that flight is the best flight experience I’ve ever had to this day.)

  3. Good questions, spike. The Freedoms apply on a country-by-country basis. So, as the anonymous comment noted, Singapore has Fifth Freedom rights between the US and Germany. Because of that, Singapore Air can fly JFK – Frankfurt. (There are other issues like slots and government approvals, but you get the basic idea.)

    As someone who supports freedom of competition, I think that the more Freedoms agreed upon by countries, the better off the consumer will be. If the US gave cabotage rights to Singapore, I would be happy to let Singapore Air try to offer a better product. That’s why I’d also like to see Virgin America allowed to try. If they can’t compete, they’ll go away on their own, but if they can offer a better product, then let them in!

    But for now, there are some really cool Fifth Freedom routes in the US that are great for customers. Qantas flies a seasonal San Francisco to Vancouver route, Malaysia flies Newark to Stockholm, and Cathay Pacific flies JFK to Vancouver. You can get some incredible service flying those guys.

  4. Delighted to see you using Air New Zealand flights in your examples. To give some examples of the intergovernment air services/transportation agreements that exchange these rights, the standard US “open skies” bilateral agreement exchanges the first six freedoms and seventh freedom for cargo services only, that between New Zealand and Australia exchanges all nine freedoms(excluding seventh freedom passenger rights) and Qantas, an Australian airline, uses these rights to have 100% owned subsidiary operate ninth freedom domestic flights between three cities within New Zealand, while the recent agreement between New Zealand and the United Kingdom exchanges all nine freedoms of the air. I am not aware of any other such agreement that exchanges all nine although those countries that have signed up to the MALIAT (see and its Protocol have exchanged all except the ninth freedom.

  5. Can anyone give me an example of an existing route flown under the ninth freedom of pure cabotage? I know this procedure is not followed in the US.

  6. Sure thing. In the EU, any airline based in the EU can fly between any two cities in an EU country. So for example, Germany-based Air Berlin flies nonstop from London to Manchester.

    I don’t know if you consider that a pure example since it’s part of the EU, but there are others. Singapore-based Tiger Airways will begin intra-Australia flights next month. Technically, it’s a separate airline, but it is 100% owned by Tiger Airways.

  7. Is it not true that the open skies agreement will be revoked in the next few years if America continues to withhold 9th freedom rights to European carriers?

  8. anon – Well, it’s unclear what will actually happen, but that is the threat. The previous open skies agreement was signed with the understanding that follow-on talks to allow cabotage (ninth freedom flying) would be held. I highly doubt that we’ll see the US actually approve this measure, and if that’s the case, the EU will have to decide whether to back out or not.

  9. dear sir/madam

    my name is faisal i have a question about rule 9 which says an scheduled foreign international carrier operating an other country so what about if it is not an international carrier but scheduled and foreign can it apply in this rule? thanks

    1. faisal – If the airline is not based in the country, then it would require the ninth freedom to operate. It doesn’t matter if it’s international or not.

  10. so why did the came up with the Freedoms of the Air ?
    what led to the creation of the freedom ??Was it from the 1940’s (the Chicago Convention )

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