Air NZ, Cathay Pacific Cuts Highlight the Death of the True Fifth Freedom Flight

The 1944 Chicago Convention was a landmark agreement that, among other things, pushed the global air travel industry to create a defined set of “freedoms” of the air which would guide what routes airlines from individual countries could and couldn’t fly. The so-called “fifth freedom” has long been one of the more well-known and controversial ones. It is also on its way to the dustbin of history, at least in its truest form.

The fifth freedom grants “the right to fly between two foreign countries on a flight originating or ending in one’s own country.”

There was a very specific purpose for this back in the day. It used to be that aircraft didn’t have all that much range. If an airline wanted to fly from its home country to a far-flung destination, it had to stop somewhere. And the ability to pick up local passengers beyond the first stop was important to ensuring the flight was sustainable.

This was used frequently in the ensuing years by airlines all around the world. Even Pan Am flew via Tokyo into Asia, among other stopping points. It was an important tool for airlines to use in order to connect all parts of the world.

Over the years, airlines adopted additional reasons for operating a fifth freedom flight. Sometimes demand for a specific route was so thin that airlines would try to couple two cities together in order to generate enough traffic. That led to some creative routings like Philippine Airlines flying Manila to Las Vegas via Vancouver or Air China flying Beijing to Panama City via Houston.

This, unfortunately, doesn’t work very well from an economic standpoint. The limited number of travelers often doesn’t justify the costs incurred by adding that extra city to an aircraft’s routing. Philippine left Vegas entirely, and while Air China soldiers on from Panama City to Houston, it’s certainly not for commercial reasons. (When was it that Panama stopped recognizing Taiwan and instead recognized China? Oh yeah….)

Range has always been the best reason for fifth freedom flights to exist, but as aircraft range increased, these routes started to disappear. For example, Cathay Pacific used to fly via Vancouver to New York/JFK because it was its only option. Nonstop service began 15 years ago, and there are now 3 daily flights that go nonstop to New York. The Vancouver flight ends on March 27 when another 4 weekly nonstop flights join the fray.

The Stunning Air NZ All-Blacks 777-300ER at London/Heathrow (from my trip in April 2019)

Then there is Air New Zealand, which has flown from Auckland to London/Heathrow via Los Angeles for more than three decades. This is a different situation than Cathay Pacific’s in that it still can’t fly nonstop to London thanks to aircraft range limits. But it still has decided to end the flight in October 2020.

This is the end of an era, but it’s the beginning of one that’s more practical. Air New Zealand lost money on that flight year after year. Today, the airline says that only 7 percent of people who fly from Auckland to London do so on Air New Zealand via Los Angeles. Sure, there were more people flying solely between LA and London, but with five other airlines on the route, it required dedicating tremendous resource to try to keep it afloat. In London alone, there was a large sales office and even a 100+ person crew base to operate the flights.

Instead, Air New Zealand will work with partners to get people to London “with partner airlines via 12 gateways in Asia and the Americas….” For those who really want to go via Los Angeles, there is always the option to fly United from there to London. Then again, why would anyone want to go via the US with its terrible transit policies? I’d expect we might see more through places like Hong Kong — since Air New Zealand and Cathay Pacific have a joint venture of their own — or Singapore.

For Air New Zealand, the point is that this fifth freedom flight takes up a lot of aircraft time and isn’t particularly profitable. With strong partners, the airline can cut this off and put that airplane to work somewhere where it’ll generate more profit. Concurrently with this announcement, Air New Zealand said it would start flying nonstop to Newark. That’s going to provide better return than a London flight ever would.

But I digress. What’s left in the US in terms of fifth freedoms? I suppose Singapore Airlines is probably the last of the airlines really trying to do something traditional. It still flies from Singapore to San Francisco via Hong Kong, Los Angeles via Tokyo, and New York/JFK via Frankfurt. But it too can fly nonstop from all those cities to Singapore thanks to new aircraft with greater range. A flight via Seoul/Incheon to the US has already been cut. Others can’t be all that far behind. Economic pressure will eventually set in.

The rest of the fifth freedom flights that remain really aren’t about bringing people from an airline’s home country to a third country that’s far away. Oh sure, Emirates will tell you that it flies from Dubai to Newark via Athens or to JFK via Milan, but that’s not really what it’s doing. (It can — and does — easily fly to New York nonstop.) This is about finding ways to use lower costs to win in a local market that would naturally have higher costs. It’s a perversion of the original system.

While fifth freedom flights will continue to exist, the days of operating to a third country via another because of lack of range are numbered. Because of that, the need for fifth freedoms to be included in “open skies” agreements has diminished as well. I do wonder if a change in policy is in order. That, however, opens up a whole different can of worms.

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28 Responses to Air NZ, Cathay Pacific Cuts Highlight the Death of the True Fifth Freedom Flight

  1. A says:

    I get why the fifth freedom routes are going away but I’m not always a fan of airlines pushing off that last leg to a partner airline as the on board experience often varies widely. Now if going from long-haul to long-haul and you’re booked in the most premium cabin on your originating flight, that’s usually fine, but what if you’re Delta Premium Select and going to one of their partner airlines….not so good. Have had several colleagues and friends get stung by that. For a short final on a narrow body I might not care as much but going from a relatively comfortable “domestic F” seat to the back of a 777 with 10 seats wide is a serious let down, cough, cough KLM.

    • Jon says:

      The thing is, depending on the airline you may still see these sort of inconsistencies – even in the same class of service. Look at United for a perfect example. Let’s say you’re in Frankfurt and want a vacation in Hawaii. If you choose UA, you may very likely find yourself going from a true Polaris 1-2-1 Biz with good service to a 2-4-2 Biz with terrible service.

      But you make a very valid point that PEY is particularly painful due to some (mostly US) airlines’ extra legroom seats qualifying as “premium”, while other airlines do not due to fare code.

  2. Matt D says:

    I’d love to see non US carriers be allowed to set up shop to run domestically. Could you imagine, say Japan Air Lines bringing over a few 738’s and running a shuttle between LAX/SFO and LAS? Or Emirates running a few 777’s between LAX and JFK.

    And if their respective governments subsidize them on top of that, then so be it.

    Watching the US Domestics go completely hysterical would be absolutely priceless. THAT’S where we would finally see some true competition, since the days of new starts here are pretty much over and done.

    • Nick says:

      You’d only get competition on routes that are highly competitive. JFK to LAX/SFO etc
      The really expensive flights are all fortress hubs to second/third tier city. JAL isn’t going to fly IAH/MLU or MSP to OMA Other carriers don’t fly it because there isn’t anyway for them to make money. It would be no different for JAL or EK

    • Grichard says:

      Sure, but to be clear, those wouldn’t be fifth freedom flights, which are by definition international. You’re describing ninth freedom flying, which has never been widely permitted.

      • Jason H says:

        It is throughout the EU, which is why you have airlines like RyanAir and EasyJet flying all over.

        • The EU for the purposes of aviation is essentially one big domestic market.

          That’d be like saying that a post deregulation Southwest couldn’t fly between ORD and LGA because they’re based in Texas.

    • Alex Hill says:

      You’re making the assumption that JAL- or Emirates-level service would suddenly be profitable on US domestic routes. US consumers have made very clear (with their wallets) that they don’t want to pay for better service; hence the race to the bottom. There are some signs now that the market has found a bottom (eg AA backtracking slightly on their most customer-unfriendly configurations), but I don’t see JAL magically providing better service than AA or even DL when competing in domestic US markets.

      Another reason foreign airlines can be much cheaper with better services is labor practices, like the Emirates policies that keep their customer-facing workforce much younger. The US of course should not allow foreign airlines subject to different labor policies and union rules to compete domestically. (This is independent of what you think of US labor practices: even if you think the US should allow different labor practices, those rules should apply to domestic airlines operating domestically the same as any foreign airlines operating domestically.)

  3. FormerEskimo says:

    Don’t forget SQ’s SIN-DME-IAH!

  4. Gary73 says:

    Remembering some great and historic “Fifth Freedom” routes on TWA: 840 (LAX-JFK-FCO-ATH-TLV/CAI), 810 (BOS-CDG-FCO-ATH-TLV), 910 (JFK/BOS-SMA-LIS-MAD-FCO-ATH….in an earlier day, also on certain days puddle-hopped Algiers-Tunis-Tripoli). “Round the World” JFK-FRA-TLV-BOM-BKK-HKG-TPE-GUM-AHA-HNL-LAX. Those were the days….

  5. Potcake says:

    I’m flying Emirates tomorrow MXP-JFK, Delta be damned. Thank God for fifth freedom!

  6. Yosef Romano says:

    I think that soon there’ll be an Emirates Mexico City Barcelona route.

  7. Rich says:

    Are you going to do a story on the firing of Kevin McAllister as president and CEO of Boeing Commercial Airplanes?

    Or is there nothing else to add?

    Thanks.

  8. Al says:

    Even though SQ has direct SFO to SIN 2x/day, I doubt they’ll get rid of SQ001/2 SFO-HKG anytime soon. This flight is often packed to the brim. SQ of course has the best service of the 3 airlines servicing this route non stop.

  9. Andy says:

    I recently booked CX YVR-JFK for November to take it once before it’s gone.

  10. Dasher says:

    My one and only Fifth Freedom flight was probably one of a kind.

    I, along with several colleagues, were stranded in Haiti in the midst of one of their (then) frequent coup d’etats. The airport was closed for days. Suspected rebels were being shot in the streets by the military police. Hotels allowed guests to stay, but electricity and phones were cut off, restaurant kitchens ran out of food, and everything outside was closed or on fire (not to mention the guns).

    Finally, after nearly a week, flights resumed and we were able to get on an Air France flight from Paris through Port Au Prince to Miami. That routing never made any sense to me, but I was thankful for it. Now, maybe it was because we were hungry, tired and shell shocked… or maybe because Air France had truly outstanding service… but that relatively short flight from Port Au Prince to Miami was the best I’ve ever flown.

  11. Robert says:

    1991, SEA YYZ via Thai A310…

    Flew this 5th Freedom flight with Alaska Airlines award ticket.
    So glad we did it, first Airbus flight!

  12. KIng H says:

    Air China operated Peking – Montreal – Havana. YUL to HAV is operating as joint venture with Air Canada.

  13. Greg Mermel says:

    AF used to operate ORY-HOU-MEX using 707-320s.

    My parents and I flew on Air France between HOU-MEX several times, as the schedule was more convenient than Pan Am’s.

    Yes, it was ORY. I distinctly remember flying in and out of Hobby; international flights moved to IAH when it opened in 1969, and CDG didn’t open until 1974.

    I remember as a high schooler (?) reading in the newspaper about the excitement of Houston’s first non-stop flight to Europe. The ~5,000 mile flight was reported to be at the outer limit of the 707-320’s range, and seen as quite a feat.

    Houston already had direct service to Amsterdam on KLM, but their DC-8s didn’t have the same range; a technical stop was required in Montreal.

  14. Carlo says:

    I flew LHR-FCO back in the late 1980s on Ethiopian Airlines. That counts right??

  15. King says:

    Other 5th freedom flight I have been on are (1) SIN-CGK on LH that has been discontinued, (2) KLM KUL-CGK and (3) EK BKK-HKG.

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