Behind any commercial flight is more than a century of political negotiation and accords
that dictate who, how, and where airlines can fly.
Aviation is one of the most unifying industries worldwide because it is what brings the world
The beginning of aviation agreements came with the 1944 Chicago Convention on International
This convention established the UN oversight agency responsible
for civil aviation—the International Civil Aviation Organization.
The ICAO is recognized by every country worldwide except for
Liechtenstein, Dominica, and Tuvalu.
Of those, Tuvalu is the sole country to have an
international airport, so that means that all but one sky-faring nation worldwide is
a part of the ICAO.
Soon after its inception, the ICAO laid out five fundamental rights of aviation, known
as the Five Freedoms of the Air, which serve
as a framework for international aviation agreements.
Each freedom has varying levels of acceptance, but every developed nation worldwide grants
these rights to certain foreign airlines.
The first freedom of the air is the right to fly over a foreign country without landing.
Pretty much every commercial flight and commercial airline is allowed to do this.
There are exceptions—the EU has a list of hundreds
supposedly unsafe airlines that are not allowed in EU
airspace—but there are no large airlines today restricted from certain airspace.
It may seem like a given that foreign airlines can overfly countries,
but the airspace above a country is sovereign territory of that country… more or less.
There isn’t actually an internationally recognized line of
separation between sovereign airspace and space.
Some say it’s 19 miles above sea level—the highest altitude balloons and planes can fly—while
others say its as high as 99 miles—the altitude of the lowest stable earth orbits.
The US classifies anyone who’s flown 50 miles or
higher above earth as an astronaut, so that therefore means that the US recognizes 50
miles above earth as the beginning of space, however,
there are instances in which the US hasn’t respected sovereignty below 50 miles.
When Space Shuttle missions returned to earth, they did
so much like an airplane—with a slow horizontal descent down to a runway.
Their descent paths were so long that they had to descend over
foreign nations, such as Canada, below 50 miles of
altitude, and yet the US never requested permission from Canada to fly in their airspace.
Just because airlines are allowed to fly over foreign
countries doesn’t mean that they can do so
Of course they need to be in contact with Air Traffic Control, but they also
need to pay whats known as overflight fees.
Overflight fees are how airlines pay foreign countries they fly over but don’t land or
take off in for the use of their air traffic control
Airlines still have to pay to use air traffic control in countries they land or take off
in, but these fees are paid and calculated in different
ways depending on the country.
Overflight fees are nearly universal.
The US, for example, charges $56.86 per 100 nautical miles.
You may think that these fees are fairly inconsequential since the only international flights that
really fly over the US without landing are flights to, from,
or between Mexico, Canada, and some Caribbean nations, however, the US is actually
responsible for a huge amount of airspace—way larger than the US itself.
It was allocated this airspace by the International Civil Aviation
Organization and since it provides air traffic control
for this area, it also charges overflight fees.
This does mean, weirdly, that flights from Australia,
New Zealand, Papa New Guinea, and other Melanesian countries pay overflight fees to the US
when flying to north-east Asian destinations such as Japan, Korea, and China.
In US oceanic airspace, however, airlines only pay $21.63
per 100 nautical miles.
It may seem like these small charges would have little effect, but on long haul flights
overflight fees can really add up.
Especially with the razor thin airline margins that you learned
about my “Why Flying is so Expensive” video, airlines do have to put consideration
into where they fly based on overflight fees.
Canadian overflight fees are notoriously expensive.
They work on a variable cost structure based on takeoff
weight and distance flown so I won’t go into actual
Almost any flight originating in the US has to fly through expensive Canadian airspace
en-route to Europe as you learned in my video about the North Atlantic Tracks, but airlines
do have strategies to lower these costs.
The most efficient route between San Francisco and
Frankfurt goes north through Montana, up over north-east Canada, then across Greenland,
Iceland, and down into Europe; however, airlines don’t always use this route.
On certain days with certain wind and weather conditions,
they’ll fly east through the United States, then enter
Canadian airspace somewhere over Minneapolis or Chicago so that they’ll pay less in Canadian
Complicated route planning software takes all variables—weight, weather,
overflight fees, etc—into account and figures out what route is most financially efficient,
even if it wastes time or fuel.
Moving on, the second freedom of the air is the right for airlines to land in foreign
countries for technical stops.
Essentially, that means refueling.
Modern airplanes have ranges of up to 9,000 miles, so there’s little need
anymore for refueling stops, but in the past they were
crucial for long-haul flights.
Shannon airport, in western Ireland, once received hundreds of
flights per day despite being located in a exceptionally rural area.
The nearest large city to Shannon, Limerick, has a population of less
than 100,000, but geographically, Shannon airport is
the nearest airport to the US so back when airplanes had shorter ranges they’d make
a stop to refuel in Shannon before continuing on to
their continental european destination.
During the era of the Soviet Union, almost no airline had
permission to overfly the USSR, so airlines had to
literally go the other way round the earth.
Nearly every flight between Europe and Asia was
routed with a technical stop in Anchorage, Alaska to refuel.
Obviously this was incredibly inefficient.
Today’s direct Europe-Asia flights take between 10-12 hours, but back when they
stopped in Anchorage they took as many as 22 hours.
Despite the huge range of airplanes today, there are still some flights that require
Australia and New Zealand are almost exactly on the opposite side of the world
from London, so any flight between the two places has
to make a stop somewhere.
On its London-Sydney flights, Qantas Airlines makes a stop in
Dubai, and on flights between London and Auckland, Air New Zealand stops in Los Angeles.
It is expected, however, that within weeks or
days of this video going up, Qantas airlines will
announce a new direct route between Perth in Western Australia and London with their
787-900 Dreamliners which would be the first direct
commercial service in history between Europe and
This 9,000 mile trek would take an immense 18 hours to connect the two continents.
The third freedom of the air is pretty simple—the right to fly commercially from one’s
own country to another country.
This is just like Air France flying Paris to New York, or
Singapore Airlines flying Singapore to Dubai.
Almost every international airline is granted this
The forth freedom is just the inverse of this—the right to fly commercially from
another country to one’s own.
There are really no instances where the third and fourth freedoms
are granted separately—if an airline is allowed to fly somewhere, they’re also allowed
to fly back with passengers.
The fifth and final official freedom is the right for an airline to fly passengers between
two foreign countries on a flight originating or terminating in their own country.
Now, this is very similar to the second freedom and the
second and fifth freedoms often, but not always, granted together.
With the second freedom, Qantas is allowed to stop in Dubai to refuel, but if
they’re granted the fifth freedom, Qantas is also allowed to pick up new paying passengers
in Dubai and fly them to London.
Some examples of this freedom include Air India’s New York-
London-Hyderabad route which is allowed to fly passengers between New York and London,
Cathay Pacific’s Hong Kong-Vancouver-New York route which is allowed to fly passengers
between Vancouver and New York, and Ethiopian Airlines Addis Abada-Dublin-Los Angeles
flight which is allowed to fly passengers between Los Angeles and Dublin, however the
king of all fifth freedom routes has to be United
Airlines Island Hopper route between Hawaii and
This flight stops in Majuro, Marshall Islands; Kwajalein, Marshall Islands; Pohnpei,
Micronesia; and Chuuk, Micronesia and has fifth freedom rights at every stop, but lets
move on to the sixth freedom.
It is a little strange that there is a sixth freedom in the five freedoms of aviation.
There are actually nine total freedoms, but only the
first five are recognized officially in the ICAO’s five
While freedoms six through nine are widely accepted, they are not as universal,
except for number six.
The sixth freedom is actually unbelievably common.
It’s the right for an airline to transport passengers from one foreign
country to another via their own country.
This is just like Air France taking passengers from
New York to Dubai via Paris or Korean Airlines taking passengers from Frankfurt to Tokyo
As you can tell, having six freedom rights is basically a fancy way to say airlines are
allowed to connect passengers.
There are whole airlines that operate almost exclusively using
sixth freedom rights.
Wow Airlines and Icelandair take passengers from North America to Europe
via Reykjavik; and Turkish, Qatar, Ethiad, and
Emirates airlines take passengers mostly between Europe, Africa, and Asia via their Middle
While each of these airlines do have some passengers only taking a direct flight to
their hub, the vast majority of their traffic is connecting due to their geographic positions
between population centers.
I’ll finish off by grouping the seventh, eight, and ninth freedoms together as you’ll
see they’re quite similar and often come together.
The seventh freedom allows an airlines to fly
between two foreign nations without continuing on to its home, the eight freedom is the right
for an airline to fly between two cities in one
foreign country when continuing on to its own country,
and the ninth and final freedom is the right for an airline to fly between two points in
a foreign country without continuing on to its own country.
It’s extremely rare for these freedoms to be
granted, except for in the European Union.
You see, the European Union has a single aviation market, meaning that any airline registered
in an EU country is allowed to fly flights between, to,
and from any airport in the EU.
Budget Airlines like Ryanair and EasyJet thrive off this
Despite being an Irish airline, Ryanair is allowed to fly routes like Edinburgh to
London, Paris to Lyon, and other domestic routes in foreign EU countries due to this
single aviation market.
There are almost no other instances worldwide where foreign airlines are
allowed to fly domestic routes.
Ryanair is also allowed to fly routes between two other EU
countries, like Paris to Berlin, and from other EU countries to outside the EU, such
as Barcelona to Fez, Morocco.
This is also how Norwegian Airline is allowed to fly long haul from Sweden,
Denmark, and the UK to the US… well, more or less.
You may recall that Norway is actually not part of the European Union, so they’re not
part of the EU’s single aviation market, but,
interestingly, Norwegian Airlines is actually registered in Ireland, Sweden, Denmark, Finland,
and the UK in order to gain access to the EU’s single aviation market, as well as
the open skies treaty that allows unlimited and unrestricted
flights between the EU and the US.
There’s one really interesting use of these treaties and
regulations in the form of short-haul flights between
the Caribbean and United States.
Norwegian Airlines offers flights during the winter months
from Boston, New York, and Baltimore to Martinique and Guadeloupe.
And these aren’t extensions to their long-haul flights using
fifth freedom rights.
These are standalone flights in small airplanes—Boston and Baltimore don’t
even have Norwegian trans-atlantic flights.
Normally a flight like this would never be allowed, but since Martinique is an overseas
region and Guadeloupe is a overseas territory of
France, they’re also part of the EU’s single aviation
market and the open-skies treaty.
So those are the five, or rather nine freedoms of aviation.
Aviation is a very politically charged and complicated subject, but these
freedoms do a great job of simplifying and standardizing airline regulations worldwide.
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