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I flew on a unique ‘fifth freedom’ route from New York to Singapore via Germany — here’s what that means and why airlines do it

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Singapore Airlines Airbus A380-800.Singapore Airlines Airbus A380-800.

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  • In 1944, the International Civil Aviation Organization established nine “freedom of the air” for airlines.
  • These rights allow carriers to fly from one nation to another, with or without landing in a foreign territory.
  • Singapore Airlines operates a unique “fifth freedom” right between New York and Singapore via Germany.
Many passengers may be unaware of the universal “freedoms” of commercial air travel.Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport.Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport.

Carlos Barria/Reuters

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.ICAO building in Montreal, Canada.

Inspired By Maps/Shutterstock

Source: ICAO

These privileges are the building blocks of international connectivity and make travel across borders possible.Airplane at Berlin Brandenburg AirportA Lufthansa airline plane takes off at Berlin Brandenburg Airport (BER).

picture alliance/Getty Images

Source: ICAO

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.United Airlines and Singapore Airlines.

J Hopwood/Shutterstock

Source: ICAO

The first freedom is the right of one country to grant airlines of another to fly in its airspace without landing, while the second allows landing in a foreign territory for “non-traffic purposes,” like emergency landings.Boeing 787 Dreamliner AviancaAn Avianca flight from Bogota to London had to divert to Portugal due to an engine malfunction in September.

Avianca

Source: ICAO, An expert explains what would’ve happened if United flight 328 experienced its scary engine failure over the ocean

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 A321LRJetBlue Airways A321LR that flies between New York and Europe. These are the basic freedoms practiced by international airlines.

Bengt Lange/Airbus

Source: ICAO

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.Singapore’s Airbus A380 at Frankfurt airport.

Taylor Rains/Insider

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.Singapore Airlines Airbus A380-800.

SOPA Images/Contributor/Getty Images

Source: ICAO

In my case, I flew on Singapore Airlines’ mammoth Airbus A380 from New York to the carrier’s home nation, but first stopped in Frankfurt, Germany.Singapore Airlines premium economy seat fully reclined with legrest out.Singapore Airlines premium economy.

Taylor Rains/Insider

I flew on Singapore’s mammoth A380 in premium economy to Germany and the service was great, but the seat had one major flaw I couldn’t overlook

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.Singapore Airlines’ premium economy and economy signs in Frankfurt airport.

Taylor Rains/Insider

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.Singapore Airlines’ A380 economy cabin.

Taylor Rains/Insider

This is unlike some domestic flights in the US that allow passengers to stay onboard between cities, which is practiced by carriers like Southwest Airlines and Breeze Airways.Breeze Airways A220.Domestic and international connections of this nature work differently due to customs and security regulations.

Taylor Rains/Insider

I flew on Breeze’s new A220 jet from Las Vegas to Charleston in economy and it was nothing like flying on a typical low-cost carrier

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.Singapore Airlines Airbus A380.

Urbanandsport/NurPhoto/Getty Images

The unique freedom was not uncommon during the early days of air travel in which planes had to make multiple stops between nations.Flight Attendants BOAC Comet 1950

Hulton Archive/Getty Images

For example, during the Cold War when Russia did not allow foreign airlines to fly over its airspace, UK-based British Overseas Airways Corporation hopped from nation to nation for 36 hours to connect London and Tokyo.BOACBOAC would later become British Airways.

Jimmy Wilds/Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Russia’s airspace ban is reminiscent of the Cold War-era when most airlines couldn’t fly over the country — see the history of the Siberian Corridor

This allowed the carrier to circumvent Soviet territory, and stops included places like Rome, Italy, and Karachi, Pakistan.Bangkok, Thailand.The refueling stops were also a second freedom to land in a nation for technical reasons.

Marielle Descalsota/Insider

Source: Routes Online

With the rise of more fuel-efficient, long-haul planes, multi-stop journeys like BOAC’s have become obsolete. But, there are still cases in which using the fifth freedom gives an airline more flexibility.Airbus A330-900neo.Airbus A330-900neo.

Airbus

More airlines are choosing single-aisle jets for flights from North America to Europe — see the full evolution of jet-powered transatlantic flying

For example, Dutch flag carrier KLM Royal Dutch Airlines can carry passengers from Amsterdam to Santiago, Chile, via Buenos Aires, Argentina.KLM Royal Dutch Airlines Boeing 787 DreamlinerA KLM Boeing 787 Dreamliner, which is used for the route.

Fasttailwind/Shutterstock.com

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 Aerolineas Argetinas' Boeing 737.Inside an Aerolineas Argentinas Boeing 737, which competes with KLM on the Buenos Aires to Santiago route.

Taylor Rains/Insider

Source: CN Traveler

There are several other fifth freedom privileges around the world, like Emirates’ routing between Dubai and the US via Milan…Emirates Boeing 777-300

RikoBest/Shutterstock

I flew 19 hours on Emirates from Dubai to New York via Italy and wouldn’t hesitate to do it again over the 14-hour non-stop flight

…Air Tahiti Nui’s one-stop route between Paris and Papeete via Los Angeles…Air Tahiti Nui Boeing 787 DreamlinerAn Air Tahiti Nui Boeing 787 Dreamliner.

Francois Mori/AP

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.Ethiopian AirlinesEthiopian Airlines

Ethiopian Airlines

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.United Airlines Boeing 787.

United Airlines

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.Delta and American.

Philip Pilosian/Shutterstock

The sixth allows one airline to transport passengers between two foreign nations via its own country — which is common with hubs.Hamad International Airport in Doha, Qatar — Doha, Qatar Trip 2021Doha, Qatar’s Hamad International Airport, which is the hub for Qatar Airways.

Thomas Pallini/Insider

For example, Emirates connects customers from Australia to the US via Dubai, while United can connect passengers from Europe to South America via Houston.United 767.United 767.

EQRoy/Shutterstock

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 landing.American Airlines 777-300ER.

Nik Oiko/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

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.Avianca Cargo A330F.

Joao Carlos Medau/Flickr

Source: ch-aviation

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.Seats on board an EasyJet planeThe 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.

Grace Dean/Insider

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.JetstarAustralian low-cost carrier Jetstar operates domestic routes in New Zealand as a trans-Tasman service.

iStock

Source: EASA, ICAO, Jetstar

This is why Irish low-cost carrier Ryanair can fly domestic routes in Italy or open a base in France.Ryanair.

Stefano Garau/Shutterstock

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.Delta Air Lines at JFK.

Ron Adar/Shutterstock

Source: Cornell Law School

For example, African carrier Air Senegal taps into its eighth freedom by operating a flight between its capital of Dakar and Baltimore via New York, but it cannot sell tickets for the flight between the two US cities.Milan Malpensa Airport (Lombardia, Italy) - May 2020 - Landing of Airbus 330-900 Air SenegalAir Senegal Airbus A330-900neo

Davide Calabresi/Shutterstock

An African airline just started flying regularly between New York and Baltimore using one of Airbus’ newest jets, but most Americans can’t book a seat on it

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