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.
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.