Can an airline operate as it pleases abroad? The 9 freedoms of the air

You’re convinced that an airline can only operate flights to and from its own territory, and seeing Singapore Airlines fly between Copenhagen and Rome, or Emirates between Milan and the United Kingdom, raises questions in your mind?

The ability of an airline to serve, or even overfly, a foreign country is highly regulated, and represents a major commercial challenge.

In this article, we explain the ins and outs of what are known as “air transport freedoms”.

A commercial issue first and foremost

An airline, like any other business, ideally dreams of being able to operate the most popular and profitable routes, or to position itself in a niche neglected by the competition. And, ideally, it doesn’t matter where as long as it has commercial potential or believes it has a competitive advantage in a given context.

On the other hand, some routes have a certain monopoly, and public authorities (and consumers) would sometimes like to see a little more competition. Even if it comes from abroad.

We should also remember that there was a time when air transport was less well developed than it is today, and when it was essential to develop better connections between major cities, countries and continents. In a world where the number of players was not as great as it is today, this meant allowing those who could to expand beyond their own borders.

It was for all these reasons, and many others, that ICAO adopted the “nine freedoms of the air” at the Chicago conference in 1944.

Source : wikipedia
1st freedom of the airRight to fly over a country without landing

Example: Air France flies over Russia between Paris and Tokyo. A sadly topical example.
2nd freedom of the airThe right to refuel in a foreign country without embarking or disembarking passengers.

Ex: A french plane stops in Singapore to refuel before leaving for Australia. Or, during the Cold War, a Paris-Tokyo flight was unable to fly over the USSR, so it stopped off in Anchorage (Alaska) to refuel, as it had insufficient range to reach Japan via the polar route.)
3rd freedom of the airThe right to fly from one country to another.

Example: An Air France flight between Paris and New York
4th freedom of the airRight to fly from another country

Ex: Air France flight from New York to Paris. This is the logical counterpart of the 3rd freedom, without which the return flight would be empty.
5th freedom of the airThe right to fly between two foreign countries after or before a flight to one’s own country.

Ex: Emirates flies from Dubai to Milan, can disembark and embark passengers in Milan and then fly to New York. Ditto for the return flight on the same route.
6th freedom of the airThe right to fly from one foreign country to another (or to another city in the country of origin) with a stopover in one’s own country. This is indirect cabotage.

Ex: Frankfurt-Singapore on Emirates with a stopover in Dubai or New York-Toronto-San Francisco.
7th freedom of the airThe right to fly between two countries without a stopover in one’s own country. This is autonomous cabotage.

Example: a French airline operates a London-New York route.
8th freedom of the airThe right to fly between two cities in a foreign country as an extension of a flight from one’s own country.

Example: a French airline flies between Paris and Tokyo, picks up and drops off passengers, and then flies to Kyoto.
9th freedom of the airThe right to fly between two cities in a foreign country without continuing on to one’s own country. This is autonomous cabotage.

Example: a German airline operates a New-York Boston route.

Only the first 5 freedoms are recognized by international agreement, the others being considered as “so-called freedoms”.

Each country is free to grant or deny the freedoms it wishes to foreign airlines.

The benefits of the 5th freedom

We’re not going to dwell on the first four freedoms, but instead focus directly on the 5th, which is the one you’ll hear most about from aviation geeks.

What’s the point of 5th freedom for an airline? Firstly, to serve two “nearby” destinations with a single flight when it could not have served them individually due to lack of demand.

For example, it’s not easy for Singapore Airlines to fill a Singapore-Copenhagen and Singapore-Rome flight every day, especially during a pandemic. On the other hand, a Singapore-Copenhagen-Rome route is quite feasible.

It also enables an airline to attract customers who would not take a connecting flight at its hub for reasons of convenience.

Example: Emirates’ Dubai hub is ideally placed for Europeans travelling to Asia, as it does not require a major detour. On the other hand, for a European, going through Dubai to get to the United States makes no sense at all (unless mileage is the primary reason for the trip).

An Italian, for example, has no reason to fly Milan-Dubai-New York. On the other hand, if the flight departs from Dubai, makes a stopover in Milan and then heads for New York, Emirates is sure to reach Italian customers and, along with the local airline, be the only one to offer a direct flight. This changes everything in terms of competitiveness.

The 5th freedom also offers certain advantages for the passenger, or at least for the most “avgeek” of them.

As we’ve already seen with the Milan-New York route, it increases competition on certain routes, thus lowering prices. Even if the local airline doesn’t appreciate it…

In some cases, the last leg of the flight will be operated with very low occupancy, as some of the passengers will have left at the previous stopover, and will be marketed at a very discounted price.

Back to our Singapore-Copenhagen-Rome. To compensate for the fact that passengers will stop in Copenhagen, Singapore Airlines will of course sell Copenhagen-Rome tickets, and these so-called “5th freedom” tickets are often heavily discounted. The bulk of the flight’s revenue lies elsewhere, but it’s better to fly with discounted seats than empty ones. This is what allows certain “connoisseurs” to treat themselves and try out products they don’t often have the chance to use, on short flights and at lower prices.

The example of our Copenhagen-Rome flight allows passengers to discover Singapore Airlines’ business class at a bargain price, but there are many other examples of this type, such as the Singapore-Hong Kong segment in first class on Emirates, which was very popular with fans before the pandemic. More recently, Singapore Airlines launched a Milan-Barcelona service.

Business, politics and soft power

That’s what’s visible on the passenger side, but air freedom is an economic and “soft power” lever for governments.

Economic levers because, as you’ve understood, a freedom is not only granted, it’s negotiated.

The 1st freedom (the right to fly over a country without landing) seems “obvious” to us, but recent events remind us that it is not at all so. Even the oldest among us remember a time when it was not possible for Westerners to use the airspace of the former USSR, and when a Paris-Tokyo flight had to take the polar route with a technical stopover in Anchorage, as the B747s of the time did not have the necessary autonomy. And the Ukrainian crisis reminds us that a state can do whatever it likes with its airspace for political and economic reasons.

Political, for reasons that need no further explanation.

Economic, because the use of another country’s airspace is anything but free. Charges are levied to finance air traffic control and safety, among other things. For France, this represented nearly 1.3 billion euros in revenue in 2019. For Russia, we’re talking about more than 350 million a year, the bulk of which goes to Aeroflot and constitutes a major part of its revenues.

As for the 5th freedoms, they can enable a country to improve its “connectivity”, lower prices for the benefit of passengers, and also use its soft power in relation to the countries of the airlines to which these 5th freedom rights are granted. “You want to operate a flight from my airports, let’s see what you can give me in exchange…”. The opposite is also true: “you owe me something, so let’s bring those rights into the negotiation”. A bit like slot negotiations on the “you buy me Airbus, I’ll give you slots…” model.

However, for a state, the practice involves a certain diplomatic balancing act with its national airline. I don’t think the late Alitalia or Iberia were happy to see Emirates operating long-haul flights from Milan or Barcelona, but they don’t have the stature to oppose it, or at least the governments had reasons for not following them in this field (however Mexico once had no qualms about blocking a Mexico-Barcelona flight to protect Aeromexico at the latter’s request). As for the passenger from Barcelona, it’s a godsend for him: since Iberia would have imposed a connection in Madrid anyway, he might as well take a direct flight on Emirates. Nature abhors emptiness, and if the “local” airline can’t keep up with demand, foreigners will, if they have an interest.

Conversely, the Emirati airline is unlikely to do the same from Paris or Frankfurt, where Air France and Lufthansa reign supreme. And if Singapore Airlines can operate a Frankfurt-New York 5th freedom, let’s not forget that it is a partner of Lufthansa.

Bottom line

There are an infinite number of ways for an airline to operate outside its home territory, provided it is authorized to do so. And then it becomes as much about politics as business.

Image : Duba airport i by Daniela Collins via Shutterstock

Bertrand Duperrin
Bertrand Duperrin
Compulsive traveler, present in the French #avgeek community since the late 2000s and passionate about (long) travel since his youth, Bertrand Duperrin co-founded Travel Guys with Olivier Delestre in March 2015.

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