What Are Fifth Freedom Flights?

What Are Fifth Freedom Flights?

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I often write about fifth freedom flights, though don’t typically go into much detail on why they exist, what their significance is, etc. While avgeeks and longtime readers will probably know what these are, I figured it would be useful to have a consolidated post about these very cool types of flights (note that some of these routes have been suspended due to coronavirus, but at least operated pre-pandemic, and will hopefully resume again as borders reopen).

Fifth freedom flight basics

In the context of commercial aviation, a fifth freedom flight is one where an airline from one country flies between two other countries, with the right to transport passengers between them. These kinds of flights aren’t allowed in all cases, but rather have to be part of an air services agreement between countries (or part of a larger aviation treaty).

I’ll share more routes below, but just to give one example, Emirates operates a flight from Dubai to Milan to New York, so the flight between Milan and New York would be a fifth freedom flight. Why? Because an airline from the United Arab Emirates is operating a flight between Italy and the United States, and the airline can even sell tickets for travel between New York and Milan.

If an airline simply stops in an extra country to refuel, or if the airline doesn’t have the right to pick up or drop off passengers in a country, then it wouldn’t be considered a fifth freedom flight.

Emirates operates two fifth freedom flights to the United States

Why airlines operate fifth freedom flights

There are a few reasons airlines may choose to operate fifth freedom routes.

One reason is because a destination can’t practically be reached nonstop, so a stop is necessary along the way:

  • For example, Emirates flies from Mexico City to Barcelona to Dubai (with the first flight being a fifth freedom flight)
  • This is done because a 777 can’t easily fly nonstop from Mexico City to Dubai without a significant weight restriction, due to Mexico City Airport being at a high altitude (which reduces takeoff performance)
  • In other words, the only way for Emirates to fly to Mexico City is through a third country, so the airline might as well figure out a lucrative second market

Another reason is because a fifth freedom market is determined to be lucrative, even if there are no operational limitations:

  • For example, Emirates flies nonstop from Dubai to New York, but also operates flights from Dubai to Milan to New York
  • This isn’t because the airline can’t fly nonstop (it can and does), but rather because the economics of the Milan to New York flight make sense
  • The market between Dubai and Milan is large, the market between Milan and New York is large, and the market between Dubai and New York is large, so this gives the airline lots of opportunities

A last main reason is because an airline wants to serve a certain destination, but there’s not enough demand to operate directly there:

  • For example, Air China flies from Beijing to Montreal to Havana
  • The airline had previously flown from Beijing to Montreal, and then decided to add on a Montreal to Havana flight
  • Clearly the airline didn’t see sufficient demand to fly directly from China to Cuba, but for some reason (perhaps political), still wanted to add service to Cuba
  • There’s a good bit of tourism between Canada and Cuba, so the airline could this way serve Cuba while tapping into another market
Air China flies between Montreal and Havana

Why passengers should care about fifth freedom flights

There are three main reasons passengers should care about fifth freedom flights.

First of all, as an avgeek it sure is fun to fly an “exotic” airline between other countries, whether we’re talking about flying Singapore Airlines from New York to Frankfurt, Gulf Air from Hong Kong to Bangkok, or Ethiopian Airlines from Buenos Aires to Sao Paulo.

Gulf Air flies between Hong Kong and Bangkok

Next, in many cases fifth freedom flights are more reasonably priced. Airlines operating fifth freedom flights often have to price more aggressively, since they may not have the pricing power of an airline based in that country, in terms of frequencies, name recognition, etc. For example, you might find that Ethiopian Airlines prices much lower between Hong Kong and Bangkok than Cathay Pacific, for example.

Lastly, in many cases fifth freedom flights can offer a significantly better passenger experience, since these flights are often operated by long haul aircraft. For example, Singapore Airlines flies between Copenhagen and Rome, so you could enjoy the carrier’s excellent A350 business class on this short route.

Singapore Airlines’ A350 business class

It looks a bit better than Scandinavian Airlines’ business class equivalent (SAS Plus) on this route, eh?

SAS Plus on the A320neo

As another example, who wouldn’t want to fly Emirates first class between Newark and Athens? It’s certainly better than anything offered by a US-based airline in the market!

Emirates first class between Newark and Athens is awesome!

Controversy with fifth freedom flights

Historically fifth freedom flights haven’t been without controversy:

  • In many cases the “home” airlines in a country have been opposed to other airlines launching fifth freedom routes, since they don’t like the competition
  • Fifth freedom flights from Gulf carriers have been especially controversial, given accusations of government subsidies
  • Many governments have refused to grant airlines permission to operate fifth freedom flights, even in situations where an air services agreement would otherwise allow it

For example, for a long time we saw airlines in the United States rally against Emirates’ flights between Europe and the United States, and it took Emirates a couple of years to get approval from the Mexican government to launch a flight between Mexico City and Barcelona.

Emirates’ fifth freedom flights have been especially controversial

Are fifth freedom flights becoming obsolete?

Great question. 😉 The way I view it, fifth freedom flights are less necessary than they used to be, so now they’re primarily being operated for different reasons. Airlines are now largely operating fifth freedom flights based on where they see demand, rather than due to operational requirements (there are of course exceptions).

For example, for decades Cathay Pacific operated a fifth freedom flight between New York and Vancouver. This route was initially launched at a time when Cathay Pacific only flew between Hong Kong and New York via Vancouver, due to aircraft range. Eventually the airline also started nonstop flights between Hong Kong and New York, but at that point the airline was so well established in the market between New York and Vancouver that it stuck around (unfortunately the route was recently terminated, and had apparently been losing money for a while).

So while the operational needs for these kinds of flights is largely limited, airlines increasingly see business cases for operating these routes, to the extent that governments will allow.

Cathay Pacific used to fly between New York and Vancouver

Fifth freedom flights from the United States

What fifth freedom flights can you take to & from the United States? Off the top of my head, here are the ones that are available (again, some of these may be suspended due to coronavirus):

  • Air New Zealand flies from Los Angeles to Rarotonga (the route continues to Auckland)
  • Emirates flies from New York to Milan and Newark to Athens (both routes continue to Dubai)
  • Ethiopian Airlines flies from New York and Newark to Lomé (both routes continue to Addis Ababa)
  • Singapore Airlines flies from Houston to Manchester, Los Angeles to Tokyo, New York to Frankfurt, and San Francisco to Hong Kong (all routes continue to Singapore)
Ethiopian Airlines operates many fifth freedom flights

Bottom line

A fifth freedom flight is when an airline based in one country operates a flight between two other countries. Personally I love fifth freedom flights, since they can often represent a great deal, offer a superior experience, and even give you a bit of flair.

I’ve taken tons of fifth freedom flights over the years, and always seek them out when possible.

Have you flown any fifth freedom routes? What are your favorites?

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  1. iamhere

    This article was not proofread and I wonder how many of the fifth freedom flights you mentioned are still currently operation. Probably few.

  2. Phil

    Flew on SQ1 from SFO-HKG in 1997 in a 747-400 “Megatop.” Great flight.

  3. Morgan

    Favourite fifth freedom flight Ben? Or a ranking of top 5 or 10 would surely have to be a follow up post.

    Also (anyone) am I missing something major but why is it called a fifth freedom flight?

  4. burritomiles

    Once I flew Thai from ICN-TPE it was nice

  5. Marcus

    I flew a really fun one last year from Houston to Panama City on air China continuing from Beijing.
    30k United miles for business connecting from LAX.

  6. Bob

    It's not technically a fifth freedom flight (because Tahiti is part of France), but we flew Air Tahiti Nui from LA to Paris, and it was wonderful. Air Tahiti Nui provided great service and an exceptional price, whereas other carriers were much more expensive on the same non-stop route.

  7. Euro

    Flew SQ from IAH to MAN in J, first time on an A350. Also once booked my friend on SQ from ICN to LAX.

    There's just something about these flights that really appeals to me, either because of the operator or their mentality for operating them. Also what helps is that there is often plenty of award space on the lesser-known or less-prestigious routes (at least to the non-AV geek folk). Hope EK brings back the A380 on the MXP-JFK route soon.

  8. Adam Patton

    I took a fun one when Air China went from IAH to PTY. 45K UA miles per person for first class on 777. We were the only 4 in the cabin. So much better than other options to PTY. Alas the flight is no more

  9. A

    Rarotonga to LA isn’t a 5th freedom. Rarotonga is part of New Zealand.

    1. monopod

      Rarotonga is part of the Cook Islands

  10. khatl

    Cape Town to Victoria Falls to Nairobi on Kenya Airlines
    Used to also be a London to Abu Dhabi to Dubai on BA which was a ridiculously short 5th freedom flight for me in first class

  11. Easy

    I think in the last example of Singapore Airlines, you mean LAX to NRT, not LAX to Singapore.

  12. BC

    Singapore Airlines flies from Houston to Manchester, Los Angeles to Singapore...

    Think this should be LAX -> Tokyo vs Singapore.

  13. DenB

    As a Canadian it was strangely comforting fly Air Canada from Buenos Aires to Santiago. At that time, they only flew west on this route. Now they go both directions.

  14. Jasper

    A market that's served exclusively by 5th freedom flights is Lusaka to Harare. Kenyan, Ethiopian and Emirates serve this market, and Qatar may be entering soon.

  15. dfw88

    I'm not sure about your Aer Lingus example. It was my understanding that EI had obtained a separate UK AOC in order to operate those flights as a UK-based airline. Am I totally off on that one?

    1. Jason

      no - that's accurate. Aer Lingus obtained a UK AOC. Fifth freedom flights have to start in the airline's home country, go to an intermediate country, then go to a third country. Even if Aer Lingus hadnt obtained the UK AOC, these flights would be seventh freedom flights, not fifth freedom. To be fifth freedom they'd have had to start in Dublin, fly to Manchester, then fly to the USA. That's not what these are...

      no - that's accurate. Aer Lingus obtained a UK AOC. Fifth freedom flights have to start in the airline's home country, go to an intermediate country, then go to a third country. Even if Aer Lingus hadnt obtained the UK AOC, these flights would be seventh freedom flights, not fifth freedom. To be fifth freedom they'd have had to start in Dublin, fly to Manchester, then fly to the USA. That's not what these are doing. But that's not what's happening. These flights are UK AOC flights so these flights are vanilla third and fourth freedom flights. Not fifth or seventh.

  16. Jason

    The Aer Lingus flights from Manchester to the US will NOT be fifth freedom routes. To be a fifth freedom route, a flight needs to go from the home carrier of the airline's country to a third country via a second country. So your examples of Emirates from Dubai to Newark via Athens count.
    Aer Lingus from Manchester to the US doesnt count. They're forming a separate UK-based subsidiary. Though the airline wont have...

    The Aer Lingus flights from Manchester to the US will NOT be fifth freedom routes. To be a fifth freedom route, a flight needs to go from the home carrier of the airline's country to a third country via a second country. So your examples of Emirates from Dubai to Newark via Athens count.
    Aer Lingus from Manchester to the US doesnt count. They're forming a separate UK-based subsidiary. Though the airline wont have any marked differences from normal Aer Lingus services from Dublin, it'll be flown, technically, by a UK subsidiary, not the Irish main parent. Crucially, these services wont be "fifth freedom" as none of them will originate in Dublin, fly to Manchester, then continue to Boston or New York or Orlando or wherever. They'll just fly from Manchester to those US points. Technically, if these Manchester flights were operated by the Irish parent, they'd be considered "Seventh Freedom" flights, as they fly between two countries not touching the home country of the airline. This wikipedia post explains all the freedoms of the air. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Freedoms_of_the_air

  17. akira

    Tokyo was the paradise of 5th freedom flights, say KE & CI to Honolulu, KE & SQ & TG & RG to Los Angeles, SQ & CX via Taipei, BG via Singapore and Bangkok, AI & PK & MS via Bangkok, and many of DL/UA to Asian destinations.

    1. Dixieboz

      I would need Google at the ready to even begin figuring out what you are saying. I know that using acronyms are fun when you know them all, but regular people like to read the comments too! ;)

  18. VT

    Hey Ben, I think you mean Los Angeles to Tokyo, not Singapore.

  19. Steven E

    Yes Ive flown SQ from New York to Frankfurt and Athens to Newark as youve just done - it’s interesting

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Phil

Flew on SQ1 from SFO-HKG in 1997 in a 747-400 “Megatop.” Great flight.

akira

Tokyo was the paradise of 5th freedom flights, say KE & CI to Honolulu, KE & SQ & TG & RG to Los Angeles, SQ & CX via Taipei, BG via Singapore and Bangkok, AI & PK & MS via Bangkok, and many of DL/UA to Asian destinations.

iamhere

This article was not proofread and I wonder how many of the fifth freedom flights you mentioned are still currently operation. Probably few.

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