Singapore Airlines Airbus A380-800.
Many passengers may be unaware of the universal “freedoms” of commercial air travel.
Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport.
In 1944, the International Civil Aviation Organization, which sets standards for the global aviation industry, established rights for airlines of one country to fly to another.
ICAO building in Montreal, Canada.
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These privileges are the building blocks of international connectivity and make travel across borders possible.
A Lufthansa airline plane takes off at Berlin Brandenburg Airport (BER).
picture alliance/Getty Images
According to ICAO, there are five official freedoms of the air and four “so-called” rights, which are outlined in bilateral and multilateral treaties between countries.
United Airlines and Singapore Airlines.
The third freedom grants a home airline of one nation to deliver passengers to another, and the fourth allows that carrier to transport passengers back.
JetBlue Airways A321LR that flies between New York and Europe. These are the basic freedoms practiced by international airlines.
While the first four are pretty straightforward, the fifth freedom is one of the most interesting privileges and is the unique route I took from New York to Singapore in early January.
The fifth freedom of the air allows one nation’s airline to transport passengers between two foreign countries without first traversing its own.
Singapore Airlines Airbus A380-800.
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The airline was allowed to drop off passengers in Frankfurt and pick up more to fly to Singapore. I noticed a lot of Germans on my flight headed to customs after landing.
Singapore Airlines’ premium economy and economy signs in Frankfurt airport.
Even though I was continuing on to Singapore, I still had to disembark and reembark the jet — but I didn’t have to reclear security.
Singapore Airlines’ A380 economy cabin.
Once I reboarded the aircraft on the second leg, I was seated next to a couple from France who did not originate in the US but were picked up by Singapore in Frankfurt.
Singapore Airlines Airbus A380.
The unique freedom was not uncommon during the early days of air travel in which planes had to make multiple stops between nations.
Hulton Archive/Getty Images
This allowed the carrier to circumvent Soviet territory, and stops included places like Rome, Italy, and Karachi, Pakistan.
The refueling stops were also a second freedom to land in a nation for technical reasons.
Source: Routes Online
For example, Dutch flag carrier KLM Royal Dutch Airlines can carry passengers from Amsterdam to Santiago, Chile, via Buenos Aires, Argentina.
A KLM Boeing 787 Dreamliner, which is used for the route.
Source: CN Traveler
This routing allows the carrier to tap into two foreign markets while only having to operate one widebody plane across the Atlantic, and it generates more competition.
Inside an Aerolineas Argentinas Boeing 737, which competes with KLM on the Buenos Aires to Santiago route.
Source: CN Traveler
…Air Tahiti Nui’s one-stop route between Paris and Papeete via Los Angeles…
An Air Tahiti Nui Boeing 787 Dreamliner.
Source: Air Tahiti Nui
…and Ethiopian Airlines’ flight between the US and Addis Ababa via the West African nation of Togo. All of these give more options to travelers.
Source: Ethiopian Airlines
However, many fifth freedom routes were suspended due to the pandemic, like United Airlines’ connection between Hong Kong and Singapore, which it bought from Pan Am in 1985.
Source: Simple Flying, Business Traveller, New York Times
Beyond the fifth freedom of the air, which is probably the most interesting, there are the “unofficial” rights, numbered six through nine.
The sixth allows one airline to transport passengers between two foreign nations via its own country — which is common with hubs.
Doha, Qatar’s Hamad International Airport, which is the hub for Qatar Airways.
For example, Emirates connects customers from Australia to the US via Dubai, while United can connect passengers from Europe to South America via Houston.
The seventh gets a little more complicated but is an agreement between two countries to transport people or cargo between third states, even if the carrier’s own home nation isn’t a starting, stopping, or layover point.
American Airlines 777-300ER.
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The US and Colombia recently expanded their treaty to allow this for cargo, meaning a US-based carrier’s aircraft with allowance to operate in Colombia could fly directly to Brazil or Chile from Bogota, for example.
Avianca Cargo A330F.
Joao Carlos Medau/Flickr
The last two rights allow an airline to operate a domestic flight in a foreign country with or without flying to or from its home nation as well.
The eighth freedom allows this only if the plane is flying to or from its home nation as well, while the ninth allows it without the stop. Pictured is the interior of an easyJet plane that operates these types of routes.
These are most common in places like the European Union or in New Zealand and Australia in which a “single aviation market” is created and allows several countries to operate under one umbrella of airspace.
Australian low-cost carrier Jetstar operates domestic routes in New Zealand as a trans-Tasman service.
Source: EASA, ICAO, Jetstar
This is why Irish low-cost carrier Ryanair can fly domestic routes in Italy or open a base in France.
Though, this cabotage is rare outside these established corridors — and is actually illegal in the US — as governments want to ensure their own airlines do not lose customers to foreign competition.
Delta Air Lines at JFK.
Source: Cornell Law School