If you’ve never heard the term ‘fifth freedom flights,’ you might be missing out on a lucrative way to snag a deal or use your frequent flyer miles. But to explain why, we have to start from the early days of airline regulation:
Back in 1944, airlines and governments from around the world got together in Chicago and designated a series of five official “freedoms of the air,” including that states have control over their own air space and ground landings. The fifth freedom, however, is an airline’s “right to fly between two foreign countries on a flight originating or ending in one’s own country.”
One example of a fifth freedom flight, according to SmarterTravel’s sister site Airfarewatchdog, is: “Singapore Airlines operates a flight from Houston (IAH) to Singapore (SIN) that heads eastward with a brief stop in Manchester, UK (MAN). With fifth freedom rights, a passenger can fly only the Houston to Manchester segment of that flight with no need to travel onward to Singapore.”
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These rights are not automatic: They’re negotiated between governments. And coupled with the third and fourth freedoms—flying between an airline’s home country and a different country—negotiated fifth freedom flights can benefit both airlines and travelers in a few ways:
Airline Benefits of Fifth Freedom Flights
On some very long flights, airlines make midpoint stops to refuel, maybe change crews and, often, to serve travelers headed to/from the midpoint stop: In the above example that’s Manchester, U.K. Fifth freedom rights allow an airline to gain extra revenue by selling fifth-freedom tickets from the midpoint to the final destination.
Example: On its Auckland-London flights via Los Angeles, Air New Zealand sells fifth-freedom tickets from Los Angeles to London along with its third-freedom tickets from Auckland to Los Angeles and London.
On other flights, traffic might be insufficient to support nonstop flights from an airline’s home base to a single distant city—but sufficient to support service to two cities by flying nonstop to one point and then a short connecting flight onward to a second, more distant city. Which then justifies selling fifth-freedom tickets between those two distant points.
Example: KLM sells fifth-freedom Buenos Aires-Santiago tickets on its flights running from Amsterdam to Buenos Aires to Santiago.
Traveler Benefits of Fifth Freedom Flights
Here’s why that all matters: Frequent flyer seats are often easier to come by on fifth-freedom flights than on local lines. Conversely, fares on fifth-freedom flights are sometimes (but not always) lower than local-line fares, which you might be more loyal to.
Here are some things to remember when checking for an advantageous fifth freedom flight to use your miles on or snag a deal:
In a few cases, a fifth-freedom flight is the only nonstop between two distant cities. See our original example: Houston to Manchester, England, on Singapore Airlines. In that case, you’re less likely to find a deal.
In other cases, a long-haul international flight may operate a short connecting flight with a wide-body plane, while local airlines use only smaller 737s and 320s. This difference is important mainly to travelers in business class, where long-haul planes typically have roomy, lie-flat seats while competitive single-aisle planes have only standard economy with a blocked middle seat.
Example: Emirates Airlines flies large Airbus A380s between Sydney and Christchurch, N.Z.
Search engines typically list fifth-freedom flights along with third-freedom flights, but there’s no way to identify a flight as fifth-freedom unless you know the airlines’ routes.
Are Fifth Freedom Flights Going Extinct?
Here’s a complete list of fifth freedom flights operating to/from the U.S. courtesy of RewardExpert.com. Overall, in the long run, the availability of fifth-freedom flights is a moving target. As long-haul planes gain additional range, tech-stop flights are disappearing.
Example: Air New Zealand will eliminate the Los Angeles stop on its Auckland-London flights later this year, and last year Cathay Pacific eliminated a Vancouver, B.C., stop on a New York-Hong Kong flight. As smaller planes stretch their range, separate nonstops are likely to replace multistep long-haul flights, and local airlines will start flying nonstops where only fifth-freedom flights operate now.
More from SmarterTravel:
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Consumer advocate Ed Perkins has been writing about travel for more than three decades. The founding editor of the Consumer Reports Travel Letter, he continues to inform travelers and fight consumer abuse every day at SmarterTravel.