A 5th freedom flight is one flown between 2 countries by an airline not based in either the origin or destination country (ie the airline is based in a 3rd country), provided the airline has traffic rights. Traffic rights means the ability to sell tickets just for that flight (without requiring connections to/from). Some flights operated by an airline based in a 3rd country do not have traffic rights - while they can carry passengers on the flight leg they cannot sell stand-alone tickets.
This is difficult to explain clearly so some examples may assist.
- A number of airlines fly between London Heathrow and Hong Kong. These include British Airways (BA), Virgin Atlantic (VS), Cathay Pacific (CX), Qantas (QF) and Air New Zealand (NZ). All these airlines are allowed to sell tickets on this leg. BA, VS and CX are airlines of UK and Hong Kong thus their flights are not fifth freedom. Qantas and Air New Zealand are based in Australia and New Zealand respectively, thus their flights between London and Hong Kong are fifth freedom flights.
- British Airways (BA) flies between Singapore and Sydney and can sell tickets on this leg, thus the BA flight between Singapore and Sydney is a fifth freedom flight.
- Singapore Airlines (SQ) flies between Milan Malpensa and Barcelona but cannot sell tickets on this leg. Any passengers flying between Milan and Barcelona must fly through to/from Singapore on Singapore Airlines. This SQ flight between Milan and Barcelona is not a fifth freedom flights.
How can you find fifth freedom rights?
There are hundreds of fifth freedom flights. There are also hundreds of flights by airlines of a different country from the origin and destination that do not have traffic rights. The fifth freedom flights tend to be concentrated in particular parts of the world.
- Within EU there is a common aviation market. This means all EU-based airlines can fly between any EU countries. In practice there are not many examples of this due to airlines wanting to avoid airfare wars.
- Australia and New Zealand have a single aviation market. This means any airline with the right to fly to Australia can also fly to New Zealand, and vice versa. There are lots of fifth freedom flights between Australia and New Zealand (particularly on Sydney to Auckland route).
- Within Caribbean some airlines have a number of fifth freedom flights.
- Within Middle East (except to/from Saudi Arabia and Yemen) there are lots of fifth freedom flights.
- Within Southeast Asia, North Asia and between South Asia and Southeast Asia there are lots of fifth freedom flights.
- Within South America there are some fifth freedom flights.
- Open Skies Agreement means any EU or US based airline can fly between USA and any EU country. This agreement was completed relatively recently and hasn't yet been widely used by the airlines. I'd expect more fifth freedom flights after the recession is over.
Why are fifth freedom flights good for passengers?
There are two main reasons to look out for 5th freedom flights - price and comfort.
Fares on fifth freedom flights typically are very low compared with other airlines flying the route, or even in absolute terms. The kangaroo route between London and Australia is an obvious exception due to the anti-competitive agreement between British Airways and Qantas.
Most of the fifth freedom flights are operated with longhaul aircraft. This usually means a more comfortable seat, and better in-flight entertainment, than shorthaul aircraft which may be used by other airlines on the same route.
How to recognise if a flight is a fifth freedom flight?
Unfortunately some online timetables show flights even if there is no traffic rights. The best way to tell is simply use an online travel agent to make a booking or dummy booking and select search all airlines. I'll generally do a dummy booking with an online travel agent to identify the airlines on a route and then double check with the airline website to see if they can beat the price.
Note that some fifth freedom flights may only operate one or two days a week, so use flexible date search if possible.
Examples of fifth freedom flights
A random selection of 5th freedom flights. The full list is hundreds long.
- Cathay Pacific between Bangkok and Colombo, Delhi, Karachi, Mumbai & Singapore
- Cathay Pacific between Taipei and Seoul plus various Japanese cities
- Emirates between Sydney and Auckland, Sydney and Christchurch, Brisbane and Auckland, Melbourne and Auckland
- LAN between New York JFK and Toronto
- Northwest and United Airlines between Tokyo and various Asian airports
- Singapore Airlines between New York JFK and Frankfurt, Houston IAH and Moscow DME, Los Angeles LAX and Tokyo, San Francisco and Hong Kong/Seoul
- South African between Dakar and Abidjan, New York JFK & Washington IAD
- Turkish between Dakar and Sao Paulo
- Abu Dhabi to Kuwait/Muscat vv
- Bahrain to Doha/Dubai vv
- Bangkok to Guangzhou/Ho Chi Minh City/Hong Kong/Kuala Lumpur/Tokyo vv
- Buenos Aires to Montevideo/Santiago/Sao Paulo vv
- Dubai to Bahrain/Cairo/Istanbul/Mumbai/Muscat vv