Back in 1944 when the commercial aviation industry was first taking shape, a meeting known as the Chicago Convention took place to set out the rules of the game for international air travel. At this meeting, a list of commercial aviation rights was drawn up, to be henceforth known as the “Freedoms of the Air”.
Some of these freedoms are rather basic when you think about it, like the “first freedom”, which allows airlines from a certain country to fly over a different country without landing. I mean, wow, we’d all be pretty badly inconvenienced if we didn’t have that one.
Others are more interesting to think about. Take the “fifth freedom” of commercial aviation, for example, which allows airlines from a certain country to fly between two other foreign countries, as long as the flight originates or terminates in the airline’s home country.
Flights like these are known as fifth freedom flights, and they’re always a cool thing to look out for if you enjoy flying and aviation in any capacity, because they add to your range of travel options, often provide a more comfortable travel experience, and allow you to enjoy a bit of exotic flair on your trip as well.
How Do Fifth Freedom Flights Work?
Airlines typically exercise the fifth freedom by operating a multi-stop flight that begins in Point A within their home country, flies to Point B in a different country, and then flies to Point C in a third country. The flight between Point B and Point C would be considered the fifth freedom flight.
Let’s take one of the most well-known North American fifth freedom flights as an example: Cathay Pacific’s flight from Vancouver to New York JFK.
The Hong Kong-based airline flies from its home airport of Hong Kong to Vancouver, and then proceeds onwards to New York. Despite there being two separate takeoffs and landings, the flight uses a single flight number, and customers are able to use this service to travel from Hong Kong to Vancouver, Hong Kong to New York, or exclusively between Vancouver and New York.
Note that the ability to carry traffic exclusively between Point B and Point C is a key feature of fifth freedom flights. If the flight simply stops in Point B as a technical or refuelling stop, without the right to pick up and drop off passengers, then it doesn’t invoke the fifth freedom (instead, it’s the second freedom of the air that applies here).
One example of such a flight is the British Airways service from London City Airport to New York JFK. This flight makes a refuelling stop in Shannon, Ireland, but customers aren’t able to book this flight from Shannon to either London or New York – it’s purely a technical stop.
Why Do Fifth Freedom Flights Exist?
Before a wave of technological innovation in the 1980s made jetliners much more cost-efficient, fifth freedom flights were essential for airlines to be able to operate long-haul flights profitably, because they allowed airlines to serve multiple different markets in a far-flung corner of the world with one single flight.
Some examples include Air India’s Toronto–Montreal–London–Delhi service and Alitalia’s Rome–Athens–Delhi–Bangkok–Hong Kong–Tokyo flight (imagine being on that one in today’s economy class seats).
The proliferation of widebody aircraft like the Boeing 767 and Airbus A330 meant that non-stop flights became much more cost-efficient, resulting in the decline of multi-stop services taking advantage of the fifth freedom of the air.
These days, fifth freedom flights continue to represent an economically viable way for a carrier to serve two markets that might not justify having their own separate non-stop flights.
For example, Turkish Airlines operates a myriad of fifth freedom routes around the world, like Istanbul–São Paulo–Buenos Aires, Istanbul–Bamako–Niamey, and Istanbul–Bishkek–Ulaanbaatar, thus optimizing their route network while ensuring maximum aircraft utilization.
Similarly, fifth freedom flights are commonplace in Africa, where there’s moderate demand for air travel from virtually every corner of the continent, but not necessarily an economically viable basis for airlines to operate individual non-stop flights to every major population centre.
Hence we see flights like South African’s Washington–Dakar–Johannesburg, TAP Air Portugal’s Lisbon–Accra–São Tomé, Emirates’s Dubai–Lusaka–Harare, and many more.
An airline might also exercise its fifth freedom rights in order to capture additional revenue between two markets that are “along the way”. Examples of this include Singapore Airlines’s Singapore–Tokyo–Los Angeles route and Emirates’s Dubai–Athens–Newark route, which capitalize on the heavy demand for travel between the West Coast and Asia and among the significant Greek community in the New Jersey area, respectively.
And speaking of Emirates, if you’re wondering why we don’t have more fifth freedom flights given their many benefits, it’s because governments and regulators often see them as unfair competition to a country’s own airlines, and thus tend to oppose them. Indeed, the US airlines – in particular United, which runs heavy operations out of Newark Airport – were staunchly opposed to Emirates entering the market with their fifth freedom route.
Given the fact that fifth freedom flights tend to require government approval from at least three countries, it’s not hard to see why there’s relatively few of them out there compared to normal Point-A-to-Point-B services.
Fifth Freedom Flights in Canada
There are a handful of fifth freedom routes that touch Canadian soil in one way or another. Here’s what I believe is an exhaustive list at the time of writing:
Air China: Beijing–Montreal–Havana
Cathay Pacific: Hong Kong–Vancouver–New York JFK
Jet Airways: New Delhi–Amsterdam–Toronto
One flight that also comes to mind is Toronto–San Salvador by Avianca. At first glance, it seems like a Colombian airline operating a flight between Canada and El Salvador. however, I think the fact that the route is technically operated by Avianca El Salvador, a subsidiary of its Colombian parent company, means this isn’t a true fifth freedom flight.
There used to be more fifth freedom routes touching Canada, like the TAM flight between Toronto and New York JFK which would continue on to São Paulo (boy do I miss that one!), but many of them have been discontinued in recent years. By nature, fifth freedom flights tend to teeter on the brink of profitability for the operating airline, so it’s not uncommon to see them come and go rather quickly.
Redeem Your Miles on Fifth Freedom Flights
Fifth freedom flights tend to be very valuable options when you’re planning to redeem miles for a trip. There are many reasons for this:
Short-haul fifth freedom flights usually feature the widebody aircraft that’s used for the long-haul sector, which can be much more comfortable than the narrowbodies that competing airlines might use
Short-haul fifth freedom flights can also be a way to try out a spectacular airline product at a relatively low mileage cost
Sometimes, a fifth freedom route is the only viable routing option between two cities within a certain airline alliance
The novelty factor – it’s just fun to travel between two countries on the airline of a third country
There are literally hundreds of fifth freedom flights around the world, so it wouldn’t really be possible for me to highlight all the potential sweet spots. Instead, let’s go around the continents and I’ll offer you a few examples of cool routings using fifth freedom flights that come to mind.
Arguably the best fifth freedom deal in North America is the Cathay Pacific flight we first discussed. Since this flight features Cathay Pacific’s incredible First Class product, it can be a great way to sample that luxurious experience without ever having to leave North America.
You can book the one-way flight in First Class for just 35,000 Alaska miles or 50,000 Avios, availability permitting of course. What a special way to get to New York if you live in Vancouver! Business class can be a great deal as well, running you 25,000 Alaska miles or 37,500 Avios one-way.
Air China’s Montreal–Havana flight used to be a fun way to get down to Cuba using Aeroplan miles, but now that Air China’s imposing fuel surcharges on Aeroplan awards, it doesn’t seem like much fun anymore.
There’s a few cool ways to hop around the Caribbean islands as well. In particular, British Airways operates intra-island flights between many of the Commonwealth nations, such as Antigua–St. Kitts and Nassau–Grand Cayman. Award availability on these flights is very good, and redeeming Avios for these short-haul hoppers is an excellent deal given the otherwise exorbitant cost of intra-Caribbean flights.
Fifth freedom flights are commonplace across South America, especially between Chile, Argentina, and Brazil. This part of the world is relatively isolated geographically, so many of the world’s airlines choose to knock out two destinations in one go by exercising their fifth freedom rights.
Turkish Airlines, Ethiopian Airlines, and Qatar Airways all fly Buenos Aires–São Paulo before continuing on to their respective hubs. I once flew the Ethiopian 787 on this route for a very nice hop across the continent, and it’s easy enough to incorporate into an Aeroplan redemption to South America.
Meanwhile, the Qatar Airways flight features the airline’s award-winning Qsuites business class seats, and the fifth freedom route can be booked for only 15,000 Avios one-way in business class (or 7,500 Avios in economy class).
Another honourable mention goes to our very own Air Canada, who flew Toronto–Santiago–Buenos Aires for many years, then scrapped it in favour of non-stop flights to both South American cities, but will soon be reverting back to the previous arrangement.
The fifth freedom route must have been profitable enough for Air Canada to try their hand a direct Buenos Aires route, although it didn’t work out in the end, and soon Chileans and Argentines will once again be able to fly between their capitals by way of an Air Canada Dreamliner.
Europe is a place where you especially want to jump on a fifth freedom flight if you can find one, particularly if you’re travelling in a premium cabin.
Why? Because intra-Europe business class typically consists of no more than an economy class seat with a blocked neighbouring seat and slightly better service. Meanwhile, a flight like LATAM’s Frankfurt–Madrid (continuing on to Santiago) or Singapore Airlines’s Stockholm–Moscow (continuing on to Singapore) will feature the full comforts of a lie-flat business class seat and premium service. The difference is night and day.
The former is bookable quite easily for 7,500 Avios in economy class or 15,000 Avios in business class one-way, while the latter can be worked into a larger Aeroplan redemption.
In terms of getting to Europe, Jet Airways’s Toronto–Amsterdam flight certainly looks appealing, although the best way to book it using miles seems to be through Delta Skymiles. You can transfer your Amex MR points over to Delta at a 1:0.75 ratio to book this award, but once you factor in that transfer ratio, it’ll be quite expensive in terms of the actual mileage cost.
Lastly, if you’re planning an Aeroplan Mini-RTW via Europe and Asia, don’t sleep on EVA Air’s fifth freedom routes from Bangkok to London, Amsterdam, and Vienna (or rather, do sleep on them – in their business class lie-flat beds, of course!)
Africa is pretty much the land of the fifth freedom flight, so if you’re planning a trip here, you’ll almost certainly encounter an oddball sector or two.
For example, there’s a fair bit of demand for non-stop travel between North America and West Africa, but there aren’t many West African airlines that are big enough to launch this route.
South African Airways and Ethiopian Airlines, the big boys of the continent, have therefore taken it upon themselves to fill in this gap, serving up routes such as Johannesburg–Accra–Washington, Johannesburg–Dakar–Washington, Addis Ababa–Lomé–Newark, and Addis Ababa–Abidjan–Newark (which I flew recently on my way to Ghana).
Moreover, Turkish Airlines alone operates half a dozen fifth freedom routes within Africa, connecting places such as Ouagadougou–Conakry, Djibouti–Mogadishu, and N’Djamena–Kinshasa, while Brussels Airlines and TAP Air Portugal have a fifth freedom presence in the continent as well.
If you’re redeeming Aeroplan miles to Africa, you’ll definitely be able to string together some very interesting trips by taking advantage of the surprisingly vast route network within the continent. Check out my post on Oddball Trips with Aeroplan for some more ideas.
Like Africa, Asia is another hotbed for fifth freedom flights, especially in East Asia where you have major population centres within a few hours of each other. For example, Cathay Pacific maintains a secondary hub in Taipei, from which they fly to Seoul, Tokyo, Osaka, and Nagoya. If you’re redeeming Alaska miles for travel on Cathay, you can even opt to have your stopover in Taipei rather than Hong Kong before jumping on one of these flights.
Speaking of Hong Kong, the city has got to be among the cities with the most fifth freedom connections out there – you’ve got Air India flying to Osaka and Seoul, Singapore Airlines flying to San Francisco, China Airlines flying to Jakarta, and no less than four foreign carriers flying to Bangkok (Egyptair, Emirates, Ethiopian, and Royal Jordanian). Lots of great ways there to add some spice to your Aeroplan trip to Asia, I must say.
We shouldn’t ignore West & Central Asia and the Middle East, of course. Travelling between neighbouring Middle East countries can be expensive, especially now that Qatar and the UAE aren’t on the best of terms.
KLM’s Bahrain–Kuwait and Dammam–Muscat flights could come in handy if you need cheap cash fares in a pinch. Meanwhile, the Dubai–Muscat flight by Swiss could come in handy if you’re redeeming Aeroplan miles within the region, while the Dubai–Bahrain flight by Cathay Pacific is amazing value at just 4,500 Avios in economy class or 9,000 Avios in business class!
Heading down undah, there are fewer useful fifth freedom options to tell you about in this part of the world. The major one is LATAM’s Sydney–Auckland flight, which continues on to Santiago – this can be booked for 10,000 Avios in economy class or 20,000 Avios in business class, if you wanted to stitch Australia and New Zealand into the same trip.
Singapore Airlines has an interesting one too: Wellington–Melbourne, continuing on to Singapore. Air New Zealand’s award availability can be spotty at best, so this is the only other Star Alliance option you have for shuttling across the Tasman Sea. You could allocate two lengthy stopovers in Wellington and Melbourne respectively, and then use those cities as your base for exploring each respective country.
Air New Zealand does have a few cool fifth freedom routes, like the once-weekly Los Angeles–Rarotonga flight serving the Cook Islands on the way to Auckland, but the lack of award availability makes it less meaningful to talk about.
Lastly, you’ve probably read about redeeming Alaska miles on Fiji Airways to/from San Francisco or Los Angeles, but did you know they fly fifth freedom routes from Nadi, Fiji to Honolulu by way of Apia, Samoa and Christmas Island, Kiribati as well? I’m looking to get myself on one of these flights – it certainly looks to be quite the unique experience!
For the airlines, fifth freedom flights represent an opportunity to scale their route network, transport more passengers, and maximize aircraft utilization on a profitable basis. For travellers, they give you a wider range of travel options (especially when redeeming miles) and introduce an exotic element to your trip, often on a better airline product to boot. What’s not to love?
Selfishly, I’d be thrilled to see more fifth freedom flights come to Canada, and I’m sure there are many potential new routes that the Canadian travelling public would benefit from. Hey Cathay Pacific, your Vancouver–New York route seems to be doing well, why not add a Los Angeles–Toronto one as well? 😉