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, like the “first freedom”, which allows airlines from a certain country to fly over a different country without landing. Others, such as the “fifth freedom” of commercial aviation, are a little more interesting.
Fifth freedom flights occur when airlines from a certain country fly between two other foreign countries, as long as the flight ultimately originates or terminates in the airline’s home country.
Let’s have a deeper look at fifth freedom flights and why they make for quite an intriguing phenomenon in the world of aviation.
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: Singapore Airlines’s flight from Frankfurt to New York JFK.
The Singapore-based airline flies from its home airport of Singapore to Frankfurt, and then proceeds onwards to New York.
Despite there being two separate takeoffs and landings, the flight uses a single flight number (SQ26), and customers are able to use this service to travel from Singapore to Frankfurt, Singapore to New York, or exclusively between Frankfurt 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).
An example of such a flight is the now-defunct British Airways service from London City Airport to New York JFK. This flight made a refuelling stop in Shannon, Ireland, but customers weren’t able to book this flight from Shannon to either London or New York – it was purely a technical stop.
Prior to the advent of extended long-haul ranges for aircraft, the second freedom was invoked more often. Airports such as Gander, Newfoundland; Shannon, Ireland; and Anchorage, Alaska were all frequent refuelling stops where passengers wouldn’t disembark.
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, as they allowed airlines to serve multiple different markets in a far-flung corner of the world with one single flight.
Some historical 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 in economy class).
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, such as Istanbul–São Paulo–Buenos Aires, Istanbul–Malé–Colombo, and Istanbul–Manila–Cebu, 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 TAP Air Portugal’s Lisbon–Accra–São Tomé, Ethiopian Airlines’s Addis Ababa–Lusaka–Harare, Turkish Airlines’s Istanbul–Luanda–Libreville, 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 the significant Greek community in the New Jersey area, respectively.
If you’re wondering why we don’t have more fifth freedom flights from Emirates given their great reputation, 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.
Redeeming Points for Fifth Freedom Flights
Fifth freedom flights tend to be very valuable options when you’re planning to redeem points for a trip. There are many reasons for this, and it’s useful to know about fifth freedom routes specifically for redeeming points.
Short-haul fifth freedom flights usually feature the widebody aircraft that’s used for the long-haul sector. This makes for a much more comfortable short-haul flight than on a narrowbody aircraft that competing airlines might use.
Fifth freedom flights can also be a way to try out a spectacular airline product at a relatively low mileage cost. Indeed, some of the best prizes in the game, including Emirates First Class and Singapore Airlines Suites Class, are best booked on fifth freedom routes.
Sometimes, a fifth freedom route is the only viable routing option between two cities within a certain airline alliance. Whereas award space might be hard to come by with the local carriers, it may be more bountiful on a fifth freedom route, and therefore easier to book using points.
Lastly, there’s a bit of a novelty factor at play, too. It’s often 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 to highlight all the potential sweet spots. Feel free to play around with FlightConnections to search for more fifth freedom routes, and then verify that the route is operating using a tool like ExpertFlyer or Google Flights.
Instead, let’s go around the continents to look at some interesting fifth freedom routings that you can redeem points for.
There are a few ways to hop around the Caribbean islands on fifth freedom flights. In particular, British Airways operates intra-island flights island nations, such as Antigua–Grenada and Nassau–Grand Cayman.
Award availability in all cabin classes 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.
In recent years, some of the most popular fifth freedom routes in North America have been axed. These included a flight from Vancouver to New York with Cathay Pacific, and a flight from Montreal to Cuba with Air China.
Airlines are constantly reworking networks, so as routes are restored, we may see the return of some fifth freedom routes to North America in the future.
Fifth freedom flights are relatively 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.
For example, Turkish Airlines, Ethiopian Airlines, Air Canada, Swiss, and British Airways all fly from Buenos Aires–São Paulo before continuing on to their respective hubs.
The easiest way to book the Star Alliance airlines that fly this route is with Aeroplan.
A one-way flight in business class between these two cities costs 10,000 points in economy or 20,000 points in business class.
Flying on the same route with British Airways comes at a similar cost. An off-peak flight in economy costs 11,750 Avios, while premium economy goes for 15,500 Avios, and business class costs 20,000 Avios.
Europe is home to some of the world’s more interesting fifth freedom routes.
Two of the best airline products available, Emirates First Class and Singapore Airlines Suites Class, have fifth freedom routes that connect Europe with North America.
Given that it’s relatively difficult to score these aspirational seats at a reasonable cost on ultra long-haul flights, the shorter fifth freedom flights make them much more accessible.
For example, Emirates has a fifth freedom route between Athens and Newark, as well as Milan and New York JFK.
First Class flights from North America to Dubai cost upwards of 135,000 Skywards miles and over $1,000 (USD) in taxes and fees.
Luckily, the fifth freedom routes are much less. For example, flying between New York JFK and Milan costs only 85,000 Skywards miles and $83 (USD) in taxes and fees.
Similarly, a fifth freedom flight from Newark to Athens costs 85,000 Skywards miles and $83 (USD) in taxes and fees.
Likewise, there is an intriguing fifth freedom route with Singapore Airlines between Frankfurt and New York. You can score a seat in Singapore Airlines Suites Class for as few as 97,000 KrisFlyer miles.
Availability on these routes is notoriously difficult to come by, but it’s well worth the effort.
In terms of getting around within Europe, intra-European business class typically consists of no more than an economy class seat with a blocked neighbouring seat and slightly better service.
However, if you can score a fifth freedom flight on a widebody aircraft, which features a business class seat and premium service, you’re in for a much better experience.
One such example is, again, with Ethiopian Airways. The airline flies the Boeing 787 Dreamliner between Oslo and Stockholm, offering an angle-flat seat for the short flight.
It may not be worthwhile as a separate Aeroplan booking, but to get between the two cities, add a stopover, and then continue onward, it could be one of the more comfortable and creative ways to get around Europe.
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.
Ethiopian Airlines has filled in this gap, offering routes such as Addis Ababa–Lomé–New York and Addis Ababa–Lomé–Washington.
Moreover, Turkish Airlines alone operates half a dozen fifth freedom routes within Africa, connecting places such as Ouagadougou–Conakry and N’Djamena–Niamey, while Brussels Airlines and TAP Air Portugal have a significant fifth freedom presence in the continent as well.
Like Africa, Asia is another hotbed for fifth freedom flights. This is especially the case in East Asia, where you have several major population centres within a few hours of each other.
For long-haul routes, one of the most interesting is flying from London, Amsterdam, or Vienna to Bangkok with EVA Air. It’s probably one of the more comfortable ways to get from Europe to Asia, especially by sipping on Krug Champagne and matcha milk tea in business class.
EVA Air’s fifth freedom flights from Europe can be easily booked with Aeroplan for 80,000 points in business class.
Moving around within Asia, we can find some more interesting fifth freedom options. For example, Gulf Air, which is an Aeroplan partner, operates a fifth freedom flight between Bangkok and Singapore.
The boutique airline is certainly worth a try, especially if you can add it to part of a more complex itinerary.
Between Seoul and Tokyo Narita, Ethiopian Airlines operates a fifth freedom flight, which can be very useful for getting between these two global hubs.
One helpful fifth freedom route to consider for a trip to the Maldives is the Turkish Airlines flight between Colombo and Malé. In the absence of other hotly-contested award space, be sure to consider this route, which also features a lie-flat seat.
And for a brief taste of KLM business class, why not consider flying between Singapore and Bali with the Dutch airline?
If the cost in points quite high, you could also consider checking out the cash fares, which might be much more reasonable.
Lastly, as another far flung destination, there are many fifth freedom routes servicing the South Pacific region.
One of the finest business class products in the world, Qatar Airways Qsuites, has a nice fifth freedom route between Adelaide and Auckland. Finding premium space to New Zealand can be extremely difficult to come by, but this lesser-known fifth freedom route can get you there in style.
Booking with Avios, a four hour flight in Qsuites costs 43,000 Avios.
Fiji Airways has a few fifth freedom routes in the South Pacific, too. These include very intriguing flights between Honolulu and Apia, Samoa as well as between Honolulu and Christmas Island, Kiribati.
Lastly, a very honourable mention goes to Air New Zealand for the fifth freedom route between Rarotonga and Los Angeles, as well as between Rarotonga and Sydney.
For 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.
It’s good practice to refresh your knowledge of fifth freedom routes, as you may just find one that is the perfect complement to an otherwise difficult journey to plan.
In some cases, you get an aspirational product at a reasonable cost, while in others, you simply have the luxury of additional options for building out your trip.