Exploring the Five Freedoms of the Air

Exploring the Five Freedoms of the Air

DALLAS — On December 7, 1944, representatives from fifty-two nations convened in Chicago to engage in discussions and authorize the legal framework that would shape the future of aviation. As a result of this meeting, the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) was established.

The ICAO members subsequently formulated a set of five freedoms that each participating country should grant to any airline planning to operate within, to, or through their airspace. The objective was to foster a unified and globalized aviation market in the years to come.

In this discussion, we will explore the Five Freedoms of the Air, established by the ICAO in 1944.

American Airlines N319AA Boeing 767-223(ER). Photo: Brandon Farris/Airways

The Freedom of Peaceful Transit

The first freedom of the air guarantees that all airlines have the right to fly over foreign countries, except when flying between neighboring nations. This freedom applies to almost all flights worldwide.

It may appear peculiar, but the airspace above a country’s territory is technically considered the sovereign territory of that country. Consequently, countries can enact laws and impose restrictions on aircraft entering their airspace, much like a police officer can issue a fine to a Mexican car driving on a US road.

One of the most significant restrictions that countries can impose on flights within their airspace is the collection of overflight fees. These fees are payments that airlines must make in order to use any resources within foreign airspace. In some cases, these fees can be so substantial that they may compel an airline to avoid certain countries altogether.

A large number of flights between North America and Europe often choose flight paths that avoid countries like Canada, which has implemented costly overflight fees as a means of revenue generation.

Consequently, some airlines, particularly long-haul low-cost carriers, prefer to take longer flight routes that bypass Canadian airspace by flying over the United States. The rationale behind this decision is that burning additional fuel may be more cost-effective than paying the expensive overflight fees charged by Canada.

The long-haul LCC Norwegian Air was an expert at avoiding Canadian airspace, which enabled them to reduce flight costs. Photo: Tony Bordelais/Airways

Safety and Security above the Clouds

For safety reasons, a country has the authority to prohibit certain airlines from entering its airspace. The European Union regularly updates a blacklist that restricts airlines from flying within its airspace, and currently, this list includes 112 operators.

Most of the airlines on the blacklist are from Africa and the Middle East. However, recently, 21 Russian airlines have been added to the list as they no longer meet the safety requirements set by the EU. This change occurred after these airlines faced isolation from Western manufacturers for aircraft parts and maintenance.

Apart from safety concerns, countries can also choose to block overflights for strategic reasons. Russia, for instance, did not sign the Peaceful Transit Agreement in 1944, granting it the authority to determine which specific airlines are allowed or not allowed to fly over its territory.

There was a widely held belief that, prior to the conflict in Ukraine, Russia had a practice of only permitting one European carrier per country to fly over Siberia on routes to Asia. This is why you would typically see airlines such as British Airways (BA), SAS (SK), Lufthansa (LH), or KLM (KL) flying over Russia, but not Condor (DE) or Norwegian (DU) flights routing over Siberia.

Denying permission to overfly a country can have significant consequences, primarily in terms of increased fuel costs and extended flight durations. An example of this is a flight operated by a Russian Government IL-96 aircraft on a route between Moscow (VKO) and Madrid (MAD) without being granted permission to use the airspace of any European Union member country.

Initially expected to be a routine four-hour flight, the journey ended up lasting over eight hours due to the restrictions imposed by the European Union on Russia.

This map shows the absurd flight path of the IL-96 en route to Madrid from Moscow. Photo: Flightradar24

The Freedom of Non-Traffic Stop

The second freedom of the air grants any airline the right to make a technical stop at any airport for purposes like refueling, repairs, or seeking refuge. Nowadays, it is rare to witness such stops unless there is an emergency situation. However, in the early days of aviation, the freedom to make non-traffic stops was highly significant.

During the signing of the Chicago Convention Treaties in 1944, commercial aircraft were unable to fly non-stop from the US East Coast to Central and Eastern Europe. The limited range of airplanes, like the Boeing 377 Stratocruiser or the Lockheed Constellation, necessitated refueling stops on most transatlantic routes.

Airports such as Shannon (SNN) or St. John’s (YYT), which currently receive fewer than 30 daily flights, were crucial stopover points in the 1950s, serving as refueling hubs at the ends of both continents and handling hundreds of flights.

However, with the advancement in the range of modern aircraft, such situations have become uncommon, except for flights between Australia and New Zealand heading towards Europe and the American East Coast.

Airlines like Qantas (QF) are investing significantly in ultra-long-range aircraft such as the A350-1000ULR. This investment aims to enable the first-ever non-stop regular service from Sydney to New York and London, known as ‘Project Sunrise’, in the near future.

Passengers boarded a Capitol Airways Supper Connie back in 1961. Photo: National Library of Ireland

During the Cold War, the Soviet Union imposed severe restrictions on foreign airlines flying into their territory. This compelled airlines to devise strategies for efficiently reaching Asian destinations from Europe.

In the 1940s and 1950s, when options were limited, airlines resorted to operating short hops across Europe and Asia using short-range aircraft. These flights, such as those between London and Tokyo, sometimes took up to 88 hours, making them highly inefficient.

However, in 1954, Scandinavian Airlines introduced polar routes, prompting other companies to change their routings. They began offering passenger flights between Europe and Japan, bypassing northern Siberia and making only one major refueling stop in Anchorage (ANC).

During the 1960s, Ted Stevens Airport became a bustling hub and one of the most diverse and transited cities in the world. Passengers from various countries converged there, as major airlines like Air France (AF), BOAC, Japan Airlines (JL), and Korean Air (KE) operated flights due to their ideal geographic location.

Today, although no longer primarily for passengers, Anchorage continues to serve a similar purpose. It receives dozens of daily flights from cargo airlines that prefer to make refueling stops on their Asia-to-America routes, allowing them to transport more cargo in their holds.

The massive transition of Anchorage from a passenger-to-cargo airport is one of the most particular in the world. Photo: Misael Ocasio Hernandez/Airways

The Third and Fourth Freedoms

The third and fourth freedoms of the air are always granted together, encompassing the right to transport passengers or cargo from one country to another and the right to return from the destination country to the origin with newly booked passengers.

At first glance, it may seem obvious that an airline would fly back from a destination to its hub with new paying passengers. It would be illogical for an airline to operate empty flights without picking up additional revenue. Flying empty planes would result in unnecessary financial losses.

However, there is a specific market that operates differently: charter flights. Charter flights provide airlines with an alternative revenue stream by scheduling specific flights between two airports that are not regularly connected. These flights are arranged upon special request from a specific company.

Charter flights are commonly organized for significant events that involve the movement of a large number of travelers, such as sports matches or major conferences. For instance, if an English soccer team is playing a match in a distant location like Argentina, the club may charter two or three flights exclusively for transporting team members, directors, and fans.

After successfully transporting all the passengers to their destination, the chartered aircraft no longer serves a purpose, and it typically returns empty to the airline’s hub. This return journey, known as a “ferry flight,” involves flying without any passengers on board.

The New England Patriots Boeing 767 is used exclusively to transport team members to their NFL matches. Photo: Misael Ocasio Hernandez/Airways

The Freedom of Intermediate Passenger Flow

Moving on to the fifth freedom of the air, this freedom initially allowed airlines to capitalize on refueling stops by disembarking and picking up new passengers during layovers.

For instance, a Qantas (QF) Airbus A380 operating a flight from Sydney (SYD) to London (LHR) with a technical stop in Dubai (DXB) is permitted to sell tickets to three types of passengers: those traveling the entire SYD-LHR route, passengers ending their journey in DXB, and newly booked passengers from DXB to LHR.

By doing so, the airline can cater to the needs of multiple passengers simultaneously while operating just one flight with a specific aircraft. The easiest way to identify such operations is by examining the flight numbers; if they remain the same for both segments of the flight, it indicates a flight operating under the rules of the fifth freedom of the air.

It is common for airlines to establish fifth-freedom flights through the hubs of partner airlines. For example, Singapore Airlines (SQ) operates daily flight SQ26 between Changi Airport (SIN) and New York (JFK) via Frankfurt (FRA) using the Airbus A380. Frankfurt serves as the hub for Lufthansa, one of the largest members of the Star Alliance.

Since direct A380 flights between Singapore and the US East Coast are not feasible due to the considerable distance, SQ logically opts to make a stop at the major European Star Alliance hub to attract newly booked passengers flying to America who prefer to experience the Singapore Airlines product. Additionally, this flight shares a code with Lufthansa as LH9763.

Another example of a fifth freedom flight was the daily connection between Santiago (SCL) and Frankfurt (FRA) offered by LATAM Airlines (LA) until 2019 using the Dreamliner. In this case, LATAM took advantage of the long turnarounds for flights to South America to operate an additional separate intra-European flight between Madrid (MAD) and Frankfurt, as we explained previously.

Singapore Airlines is well known for its “5th Freedom” strategy, which is present on plenty of its worldwide routes. Photo: Christian Winter/Airways

Freedoms that Liberated the Aviation Market

Thanks to the adoption of the ICAO Five Freedoms of the Air Treaty, airlines like Ryanair (FR), Norwegian (NZ), and SQ were established and continue to operate successfully today.

The Chicago Convention not only established and implemented the legal framework that airlines adhere to, but it also laid the foundation upon which every company and airport in the world has developed and thrived.

Without these freedoms, it would be unimaginable to comprehend the immense opportunities that the global market would have missed out on in shaping a unified and interconnected way of travel, specifically in the realm of commercial aviation.

Featured image: Adrian Nowakowski/Airways

Correspondent - Europe & Middle East
Commercial aviation enthusiast from Madrid, Spain. Studying for a degree in Air Traffic Management and Operations at the Technical University of Madrid. Aviation photographer since 2018.

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