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The Freedoms of the Air and Why You Should Care

Recently, Air New Zealand announced it would be withdrawing from its Los Angeles to London Heathrow route. Known as a ‘fifth-freedom’ route, Air New Zealand was—effectively—allowed to depart one country, land in another, pick up additional passengers in that country (and drop a few off), and to then shuttle passengers to a final destination.

Aviation, like most other industries worldwide, is heavily regulated—not only by local or national law but at a transnational and international level.

If you’re an avid reader of this website, you’ve probably heard the people refer to ‘the freedoms of the air’, but you’re potentially unsure about what it really means. We’re here today to decipher these freedoms and to shed some light on why you should care about them.

What Are the Freedoms of the Air?

The freedoms of the air are a set of commercial aviation rights. These rights were agreed upon following the convention on International Civil Aviation of 1944, generally referred to as the Chicago Convention. Simply put, these freedoms grant a country’s airline the privilege to enter and land in another country’s airspace, and were created to establish uniformity in world air commerce.

These rights, though, aren’t automatic. Though freedoms one and two—explained later in this article—are widely agreed upon, under the Chicago Convention, third, fourth and fifth freedom rights need to be agreed through multilateral and bilateral treaties.

What Do the Specific Freedoms Say?

There are eight freedoms of the air. The first five are recognized in an international agreement, with the remainder being ‘agreed in principle’ through bilaterals between countries. Freedoms six through nine are more controversial, and far less commonly found in operation.

The freedoms of the air propose that, for scheduled international air services, each nation grant these freedoms to all others (except enemy nations):

  1. To fly across its territory without landing.
  2. To land for nontraffic purposes.
  3. To put down passengers, mail, and cargo taken on in the territory of the country whose nationality the aircraft possesses.
  4. To take on passengers, mail, and cargo destined for the territory of the country whose nationality the aircraft possesses.
  5. To take on passengers, mail, and cargo destined for the territory of another agreeing nation and to put down passengers, mail, and cargo coming from any such territory.
  6. The remaining freedoms – six, seven, eight and nine – are slightly more complex. They allow for the following situations:
  7. To transport, via the home state of the carrier, traffic moving between two other States (also known as a Sixth Freedom Right).
  8. To transport without a service connecting to or being an extension of any service to/from the home State of the carrier.
  9. To transport cabotage traffic (more on this later!) between two points in the territory of the granting State on a service that originates or terminates in the home country of the foreign carrier or outside the territory of the granting State (phew!).
  10. To transport cabotage traffic of the granting State on a service performed entirely within the territory of the granting State.

What Do They Actually Mean?

Freedoms one and two exist to keep the skies of the world accessible to friendly nations. Freedom one states that if you need to get from country one to country three, and this involves flying over country two, you can do so. Freedom two is similar but does allow you to stop off in country two for non-commercial reasons, such as refueling a plane.

Following on from this, freedoms three, four and five relate to commercial privileges that allow air services to take place.

Freedom three allows a flight from country one to carry its passengers from country one to country two, while the fourth freedom allows the plane to return—full of passengers—from country two to country one.

We then have freedom five, which allows a flight from country one to country three via country two, and for passengers to disembark here – or join the flight—onwards to country three.

Freedoms six and seven are best described as variations on a theme, allowing slight changes to the fifth freedom. These include, for example, airlines transporting cargo and passengers between two countries without taking off or landing in their home country.

Freedoms eight and nine simply provide for a foreign airline to deliver domestic flights in a different country (under eight, potentially at the end of a flight originating elsewhere). It’s rarely a granted right.

What Are Some Examples of the Freedoms in Use?

Freedoms one through four are commonly found in aviation. A huge number of commercial flights operate under the third and fourth freedoms every single day.

The fifth airline freedom, as we discussed earlier, is used by Air New Zealand on its Auckland – Los Angeles – London Heathrow route. There are a large number of airlines utilizing fifth freedom flights worldwide, though this is decreasing. Emirates Airlines is one of them, with services from Dubai – Male – Colombo and Dubai – Athens – New York. Singapore Airlines flies from Houston to Singapore via Manchester. Due to a lack of services from Hungary, LOT Polish flies from Budapest to Chicago.

The fifth freedom rights were originally allowed for a very specific purpose—planes couldn’t go very far without refueling. When refueling, it made sense to take on additional passengers, if the plane could fit them.

Round the world routes utilized fifth freedom arrangements. However, as the relative range of international aircraft has increased, these flights have started to decrease. London is too far for a non-stop route from Auckland, but – like many fifth freedom flights—as competition has increased, the economic viability of Air New Zealand’s Auckland to London (via Los Angeles) has declined. Instead of operating its own flight, Air New Zealand will utilize its extensive partner network to get its passengers to the United Kingdom.

Remember that reference to cabotage? It’s a touchy subject. There are a few places worldwide that allow it, though. The European Union does allow for cabotage arrangements, and as a result, WizzAir, Vueling and Ryanair all having bases that operate domestic services outside of their home countries. Australia and New Zealand have a reciprocal cabotage arrangement, allowing carriers of each country the opportunity to deliver domestic flights in the other. Generally, though, ninth-freedom rights are tightly held, in order to protect the interests of national carriers.

And Why Should I Care?

Recall that slight fuss about the United Kingdom leaving the European Union? Yeah, that’s going to have implications for air travel. The European aviation market was liberalized in the 1990s, leading to a boom in air traffic across the continent—passengers carried between the United Kingdom and European Union increased from 69 million passengers in 1996 to over 130 million in 2015. Given the European Union is the United Kingdom’s biggest aviation market, negotiations around Brexit will need to ensure that airlines of the United Kingdom can continue to access the markets into which they transport passengers and cargo in the European Union.

At a simple level, it’s also about consumer choice. The freedoms of the air allow for greater, albeit controlled, competition. The rights, and particularly the fifth and ninth rights, allow for a greater number of operators in service. This may well mean the difference between flying on a crumbly old flag carrier, or on an impressive new piece of machinery that’s flown in from a different country to shuttle you to a third destination.

Every time you board a plane, think of the multitude of factors that come into play to make that flight happen. There is the human element of aviation, the training of the people operating the aircraft, the scheduling that allows a plane to fly with a certain mass of experience welled within it. Then there is the logistical nightmare of checking people in, loading their luggage, assigning seats, boarding a plane, and in some instances, loading food and water and other supplies to deliver to them. There is the fuel required for the plane, the mechanical engineering checks relevant to ensure its safety. And then there is the fact that thousands of hours of policy development, international discussion and negotiation has gone into developing a system of complex privileges which govern the sky and allow the safe and free transit of airplanes between countries.

It’s all rather impressive, isn’t it?


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