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.

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 to fill seats and maximize revenue

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, SWISS flies from Zurich to Sao Paulo to Buenos Aires
  • Clearly the airline didn’t see sufficient demand to fly directly from Switzerland to Argentina, but sees value in offering connecting service there as part of an existing Brazil flight
  • Presumably the icing on the cake is the ability to exclusively transport passengers between Brazil and Argentina
SWISS flies between Sao Paulo and Buenos Aires

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 Singapore to Bangkok, or Ethiopian Airlines from Buenos Aires to Sao Paulo.

Gulf Air flies between Singapore 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 Gulf Air is significantly cheaper between Singapore and Bangkok than Singapore Airlines, Thai Airways, etc.

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 Milan and Barcelona, 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 the typical intra-Europe business class products out there, eh?

Iberia business class 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 terminated in 2020, and had apparently been losing money for quite some time.

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 either available, or are launching soon:

  • 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, and New York to Frankfurt (all routes continue to Singapore)
  • Qantas will soon fly from New York to Auckland (the route will continue to Sydney)
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?

Conversations (26)
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  1. Dale Douglas Guest

    I had taken the CathayPacific YVRJFK J class several times while it was around and was so much better than what Air Canada offered plus was nonstop avoiding YYZ.

  2. Cassio Guest

    Cathay Pacific did fly a 5th freedom flight between TPE and Tokyo NRT/HND and Osaka KIX. I believe it stopped during the pandemic, and it's not clear if/when they would resume.

  3. Eric Guest

    As mentioned in the piece Ethiopian Airlines operates many Fifth Freedom Flights, and is rumored to be starting ADD-DUB-DEN service.

  4. Walkup Guest

    Have many times flown Emirates BKK-HKG. It was great while the plane scheduled was the A380. Also flew Emirates BKK-SYD but this service now withdrawn.

  5. WW Guest

    Used to fly London to Amsterdam, on Thai's 747-400s. Great service with a great light-meal, on a 45 minute flight! Pity these flights are now rare!

  6. PeteP Guest

    I flew Air New Zealand biz class from LAX to LHR about 7 years ago, booked using United miles, which was a pretty rare award ticket to score.

  7. SullyofDoha Guest

    Qatar Airways flew PNH-SGN until covid in 2020.
    I flew it once.

  8. Charles in PSP and YYJ Guest

    I remember Aer Lingus operated a flight between IAD and MAD a number of years back. It seemed at the time that the paper products were half United branded and half Aer Lingus branded. I seem to remember that UA folks hated it because it was supposed to be their route so they considered it outsourcing.

  9. Aniljak Guest

    Cathay Pacific has operated many 5th freedom flights for many years!
    Particularly between Bangkok and Singapore.
    I flew on a L1011 Tristar from Bangkok to Singapore in 80s with them
    Also did Bombay to Bangkok in Cathay 747.
    During 80s and 90s most airlines flew 5th freedom routes as aircraft stopped for fuel enroute.
    Qantas used to link Bangkok with both Singapore and Hong Kong
    Latam, China Airlines, and...

    Cathay Pacific has operated many 5th freedom flights for many years!
    Particularly between Bangkok and Singapore.
    I flew on a L1011 Tristar from Bangkok to Singapore in 80s with them
    Also did Bombay to Bangkok in Cathay 747.
    During 80s and 90s most airlines flew 5th freedom routes as aircraft stopped for fuel enroute.
    Qantas used to link Bangkok with both Singapore and Hong Kong
    Latam, China Airlines, and Emirates all currently operate 5th freedom flights between Australia and NZ.
    Some i have done include:
    Lufthansa DC10 Bombay - Singapore.
    Canadian DC10 Auckland- Nadi

  10. JB Guest

    I was looking at flights to Japan next March for a speculative booking (depending on when Japan reopens to tourism). The prices on Singapore Airlines and JAL from LAX nonstop to NRT were both similar. I haven't flown either airline so which carrier would you recommend for Economy?

  11. Jason Guest

    The only 5th freedom flight I can recall taking is Emirates from CMB (Colombo, Sri Lanka) - SIN (Singapore). I did a leisure trip to Sri Lanka and flew Sri Lankan from SIN-CMB but for my return flight I was surprised to find Emirates as an option.

  12. Michael Guest

    There's also Air Tahiti Nui, LAX-CDG.

    1. Mike C Gold

      Technically that's not 5th Freedom. Air Tahiti Nui is a French carrier so both Papeete to LAX and LAX to Paris are flights between the US and France.

  13. Icarus Guest

    KLM offers or used to offer, a large number of 5th freedom flights : Singapore - Denpasar, Kuala Lumpur - Jakarta, and a number of schedules between Kuwait, Bahrain and Muscat.

    1. Unhoeflich Diamond

      KLM also had Astana - Almaty but has withdrawn from both cities. They still have Kampala - Entebbe.

  14. derek Guest

    I like to pretend I am flying a 7th freedom flight when flying SFO-JFK on Alaska Airlines.

  15. mattnav_travel Guest

    Flew Singapore Airlines Copenhagen CPH to Rome FCO last year. Very nice & comfortable experience and a far better experience than the usual suspects on the route such as Ryanair, Norwegian or SAS

  16. Kenneth Guest

    JFK-FRA and back is a fantastic option on Singapore. I have only experienced Premium Economy so far but, it far exceeds any US airline's product. The level of on-board service is top notch. I booked a positioning flight to/form JFK from my home airport specifically for this flight and not only had a great experience but actually saved money despite the cost of the positioning flight a day before, a hotel room in Manhattan(visited a friend) and taxis to/from JFk.

  17. Art_Czar Member

    Flew Sau Paulo to Buenos Aires on Turkish en route from Cape Town. CPT- JNB-GRU on South African, but the last segment between GRU-EZE was on TK in biz. Flight was late in the evening and at the tail end of a long trip from CPT - appreciated the comfortable seats.

  18. WT Guest

    Thanks for the info. So why is it called "fifth freedom"? What are the first four freedoms?

    1. derek Guest

      1st freedom: can overfly another country, like United SFO-LHR overflying Canada

      2nd freedom: stop for fuel or other technical reasons. Hypothetically, SFO-Gander-LHR

      3rd and 4th freedom: non-stop international flight to or from another country, like LAX-MEX and MEX-LAX

      Was there a mention of 7th freedom flights? That's like Finnair Stockholm-New York with the flight or flight number not starting in Helsinki. Hypothetically, 5th freedom would be Helsinki-Stockholm-New York with the 5th freedom being the Stockholm...

      1st freedom: can overfly another country, like United SFO-LHR overflying Canada

      2nd freedom: stop for fuel or other technical reasons. Hypothetically, SFO-Gander-LHR

      3rd and 4th freedom: non-stop international flight to or from another country, like LAX-MEX and MEX-LAX

      Was there a mention of 7th freedom flights? That's like Finnair Stockholm-New York with the flight or flight number not starting in Helsinki. Hypothetically, 5th freedom would be Helsinki-Stockholm-New York with the 5th freedom being the Stockholm to New York segment.

  19. Peter Guest

    Was playing with the new Aeroplan 5k Stopover online booking function this weekend and came across Vienna nonstop to Bangkok on Eva.

    Also available from LHR or AMS.

  20. ScottS New Member

    Flew MAN-IAH R/T this year on Singapore in business class. My wife and I really enjoyed it. Really the only 1 stop option to OKC from MAN except on Virgin through ATL.

  21. Izz Guest

    I love fifth freedom flights too. That said, there is in my opinion one - major - problem.

    A huge part of the experience of flying an airline is their ground experience, and that is highly lacking when not flying to or from their hub.

    If you fly Emirates from Milan to New York in First Class, you would miss the excellent ground experience in Dubai for example.

  22. Raj - PlanMoreTrips.com Guest

    The JFK-FRA on Singapore is definitely a fun one since most people typically go to Europe more often than South East Asia.

  23. GetToThePoints Guest

    Very interesting thank you.

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derek Guest

1st freedom: can overfly another country, like United SFO-LHR overflying Canada 2nd freedom: stop for fuel or other technical reasons. Hypothetically, SFO-Gander-LHR 3rd and 4th freedom: non-stop international flight to or from another country, like LAX-MEX and MEX-LAX Was there a mention of 7th freedom flights? That's like Finnair Stockholm-New York with the flight or flight number not starting in Helsinki. Hypothetically, 5th freedom would be Helsinki-Stockholm-New York with the 5th freedom being the Stockholm to New York segment.

3
Mike C Gold

Technically that's not 5th Freedom. Air Tahiti Nui is a French carrier so both Papeete to LAX and LAX to Paris are flights between the US and France.

1
mattnav_travel Guest

Flew Singapore Airlines Copenhagen CPH to Rome FCO last year. Very nice & comfortable experience and a far better experience than the usual suspects on the route such as Ryanair, Norwegian or SAS

1
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