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

Government Regulation

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

  1. I have heard that while the US allows passenger planes to fly to Cuba the pilots and flight crew are not allowed to leave the plane while on Cuban soil. Is that a unique situation?

    1. Separate issue based on the USA applying sanctions against Cuba which essentially overrides the normal picture around air traffic rights.

      When sanctions are eventually dropped this will all change

      1. There is probably a similiarly odd situation with other countries Washington dislikes – eg Iran, North Korea and Syria

  2. It’s not entirely true in Cuba. The crew is allowed off of the aircraft and can make their way through the terminal if they’d like. They’re just not allowed to proceed through customs, and not allowed to overnight. We used to bring a mechanic and a fly away kit just in case of a mechanical issue. In 2 years of my company flying to 5 cities in Cuba, I think we had one crew have to overnight there.

  3. Why were the third and fourth broken out as two separate freedoms? What was the original intent, as the planes weren’t going to fly back empty?

    1. Neil S – I have no idea why it was structured this way. Probably just trying to be as specific as possible I’d assume.

    2. I guess it’s possible that airlines would fly a triangle. For example, AA would fly JFK-LHR-PAR-JFK and BA would fly in reverse.

  4. Take a look at BKK-HKG, there’s a bunch flying that route that are not based in either city. Technically the NRT hubs of UA and DL, and AMS-BOM on DL are also 5th freedom. There are still some tags floating around in southeast Asia and to/from Muscat.

    YVR-JFK on Cathay is a fun one, and I think they’re the only carrier on the route – fills an interesting niche .

    1. Delta flies JFK-YVR as well (I think it’s been around for less than a year though). Also, one difference between the DL and CX flights is that the DL one has preclearance in Vancouver while CX does not.

      1. Summer seasonal YVR-JFK on DL does not have preclearance, as it is a red-eye (just like CX) and preclearance facilities in YVR close at 20:30.

  5. Hard to believe with planes today flying much higher the planes did in the 1940’s, that you still have to have the right to fly over a country.

    1. Part of this also has to do with safety. You want air traffic control to know about all of the airplanes in a given airspace. If countries didn’t have to agree upon this, then there’d be a problem with any airplanes flying over a country’s airspace.

      Random fact: the US and Cuba have exchanged first freedom rights, civilian Cuban airplanes regularly fly over the US (generally to Canada) and civillian US planes fly over Cuba to locations in the Central and South Americas.

  6. Excellent, succinct breakdown of the Chicago Convention and birth of the ICAO . IMHO it is doubtful that we will see 9th Freedom (cabotage) in our lifetime.

    The complication of essentially tossing the Merchant Marine/Jones Act would face numerous US District court appeals from trade associations, owners and unions. That alone would take years to resolve. Second, even the Congressional GAO admits that pricing schemes are so complicated (as related to overseas shipping) that it is impossible to determine any cost benefit of cabotage to consumers. However, cabotage models (in shipping) show a definite negative long term impact on carrier reliability and financial stability. Yes, I know shipping and air transport are different but the basic dynamics are the same. (Look at the post-dereg start up boom of the 1980’s/90’s that lowered fares due to competition > caused airlines to bleed red ink > bankrupt or acquired > decreased competition > de facto oligopoly). Since we know that is how it will play out over the long term, do you want the last ones standing based in Atlanta or Abu Dhabi??

  7. For the 9th freedom, can an airline transport a passenger A-B-C with A and B in the same country but with a stopover at B?
    Say an Australian passenger wanted to visit New York and Los Angeles – could they buy SYD-LAX-JFK (stop), JFK-LAX (stop), LAX-SYD all on the same ticket or would JFK-LAX not be allowed?
    The same thing exists with United LAX-SYD-MEL or Cathay Pacific HKG-CNS-BNE-HKG as well.

    1. The freedoms are not about the ticket/reservation, but about the carrier. The itinerary you’ve proposed is fine and done all the time. They could buy SYD-(LAX)-JFK on QF with a technical stop in LAX, then fly JFK-LAX on a US-based carrier, then LAX-SYD on whatever carrier they want. What they cannot do is fly JFK-LAX on QF and stop over, or get off the plane in LAX on the way to NYC.

      1. In the case of QF107/108 the LAX-JFK-LAX sections are valid for online stops/connections only. So you could buy a SYD-JFK QF107 (or the reverse QF108 JFK-SYD) ticket and if the fare permits a stop you can stop in LAX and later continue your travel on the LAX-JFK portion of QF107. It’s just local traffic that can’t be carried and it must be a through QF fare.

        1. David SF – Oh you’re right. My mistake.

          3QF 108 J9 C9 D9*JFKLAX 650P 950P 744 DR 0 DCA /E
          I8 U0 W9 R9 T9 Z0 Y9 B9 H9 K9 M9

    2. What would be more interesting if someone could fly A-B-C, where A and C are in the same country and B is in a different country.

      Think about how that would benefit someone like Air Canada and makes their Toronto hub competitive for US domestic connections. GRR-YYZ-BOS for example.

      1. This is the same as cabotage (I.e. 9th freedom). I have heard that there have been cases of US airlines being sued by Canada for mistakenly selling single-itinerary tickets such as Vancouver-Montreal via Chicago. Not even close to being allowed in most places unless we are talking about EU.

    3. Jason H – What gobluetwo says. If you want to stop over in LA, you would have to fly on a US airline. You could even fly on a Qantas codeshare on an American flight, but it has to be an American flight.

      Sanjeev M – I think that’s like freedom 8.5. If there’s cabotage, then that would be allowed as well, I’d assume. Because ultimately you’re selling a ticket within one country, regardless of the stop.

      1. Cranky,

        I believe you are wrong re the Qantas situation. A passenger is allowed to fly SYD – X/LAX – JFK, then JFK-LAX (stopover), then LAX-SYD, all on Qantas aircraft, if they’re on a Qantas ticket Sydney-New York return.
        (Not sure if it works the other way around from the USA).

        The JFK-LAX doesn’t have to be an American Airlines aircraft, as stopover is allowed.

  8. If we got rid of cabatoge in the US then cruise ships could go directly to Hawaii, or cruise between LA and San Francisco.

    Also, don’t forget part of the cabatoge laws require that the ship be built in the US. I am not sure how that applies here.

    1. Jeremy, I had thought that the reason why Hawaii cruises from the US always call into Ensenada on the way out or back, was so they could operate their casino. I know when I was on Pride of America sailing around the Hawaiian Islands, the ship couldn’t operate a casino, as Hawaii law procluded it.

      As for sailing between LA and San Francisco on a cruise ship, you can already do that. You don’t have to visit an overseas port.

    1. Hasselhoff released a song called “Looking for Freedom”, which was timely during the fall of the Berlin Wall. George Michael would have worked as well.

      1. o.m.g. This is a whole new level of Hasselhoff glory. How did I not know that Hasselhoff had a solo career?

  9. Good information. Thanks.

    I remember seeing a documentary on the space race which mentioned President Eisenhower’s concern with violating the airspace of other countries and the possible legal and political fallout from those violations.

    Obviously, an orbiting satellite could potentially violate the airspace of virtually every country on the planet.

    Apparently, the Soviet Union didn’t share the U.S’s concerns and launched Sputnik. Since there was little if any reaction, the U.S. felt comfortable with the idea of launching its space program.

  10. I flew Korean Air from Tokyo to Honolulu, stayed over in Honolulu for 3 nights and then flew Korean again to LAX. Which freedom is that?

    1. Steve S – That sounds a lot like the Qantas discussion. It sounds like that would require all of the first four freedoms.

  11. I remember flying London to Sydney on BOAC (ahem, some years ago) with six or seven stops, at all of which there were full traffic rights except Darwin to Sydney, I think.

  12. For #8, United (used to?) have flights down to São Paulo that would continue onto Rio (I think it was originating from EWR). They could let pax on and off at GRU but I’m not sure if you could but GRU-GIG segment by itself.

    Similarly, I believe they still have a flight from either SFO or LAX that comes to Sydney and then continues onto Melbourne.

    1. Dima – United wasn’t allowed to carry local passengers between Sao Paulo and Rio or between Sydney and Melbourne. Simply having freedoms 1 through 4 meant that United could bring people from the US to both Melbourne and Rio with that intermediate stopping point.

      1. I’ve flown SFO-SYD-MEL on United with a stopover in SYD. The agent at check-in says that there are days when nobody boards in SYD because United doesn’t have local traffic rights.

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