Freedoms of the Air


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Air transportation is different to most other forms of commerce, not only because of its international components but also because of its governmental participation and the fact that many national airlines or 'flag carriers' are either in large part government owned, or, even if not, are felt by the government to reflect the prestige of their nation.

In addition, nations often feel that they can only rely on their locally owned carriers to have a commitment to providing service to their own country.  This is unimportant if you're a small country in Europe with excellent road and rail service to other countries, but if you're a remote island in the Pacific, air service is essential.

And so, for reasons variously good or bad, international air travel has long been subjected to all manner of complicated restrictions and bilateral treaties between nations.  One of the main treaties that sets out the fundamental building blocks of air transportation regulation - the 'rules of the road' - is the Chicago Convention in 1944.

These 'building blocks' are widely referred to as the "freedoms of the air", and they are fundamental to the international route network we have today.  The first two are basic freedoms that are, more or less, recognized by all countries, the next three are at least widely understood, and accepted to varying degrees.  Then the last four become much less common - two are  less widely accepted, and the last two are hardly accepted at all.

Each is subject to specific conditions, such as establishing the frequency of flights, that are determined through bilateral agreements between any two of the countries that are parties to the Convention.

First Freedom - The right to fly and carry traffic over the territory of another partner to the agreement without landing.  Almost all countries are partners to the Convention but some have observed this freedom better than others.  When the Korean airliner lost its way over Soviet air space a few year ago and was shot down, the Soviet Union (among other offenses!) violated this First Freedom.

Second Freedom - The right to land in those countries for technical reasons such as refueling without boarding or deplaning passengers.

Third Freedom - The right of an airline from one country to land in a different country and deplane passengers coming from the airline’s own country.

Fourth Freedom - The right of an airline from one country to land in a different country and board passengers traveling to the airline’s own country.

Fifth Freedom - This freedom is also sometimes referred to as 'beyond rights'.  It is the right of an airline from one country to land in a second country, to then pick up passengers and fly on to a third country where the passengers then deplane.  An example would be a flight by American Airlines from the US to England that is going on to France.  Traffic could be picked up in England and taken to France.

Sixth Freedom - The right to carry traffic from one state through the home country to a third state. Example: traffic from England coming to the US on a US airline and then going on to Canada on the same airline.

Seventh Freedom - The right to carry traffic from one state to another state without going through the home country. Example would be traffic from England going to Canada on a US airline flight that does not stop in the US on the way.

Eighth Freedom - This is one form of cabotage (or sometimes 'true cabotage) and is rare.  Airline cabotage is the carriage of air traffic that originates and terminates within the boundaries of a given country by an air carrier of another country, and for purposes of the Eighth Freedom, is in the context of an airline that started or ended the flight series in its home country, even if the passenger only travels within the foreign country.  An example of this would be an airline like Virgin Atlantic Airways operating flights between London, Chicago and New Orleans and carrying passengers between only Chicago and New Orleans.

Ninth Freedom - This is similar to the Eighth Freedom, and is the right to operate flights within a foreign country but without continuing or prior service to or from the carrier's home country.  This is the rarest of the freedoms, although it can be seen, more or less, operating within the EU (although these days the EU considers itself to be one big country for such purposes).

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Originally written 12 November 2002, last update 30 May 2021
Copyright 2002,3 by David M Rowell.
You may freely reproduce or distribute this article for noncommercial purposes as long as you give credit to me as original writer.


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