Fifth Freedom Flights: The Airline Loophole for Cheaper Fares and Nicer Seats

Shawn Anggg/Unsplash

Ever heard of “fifth freedom flights” and “the freedoms of the air”? The latter may sound more like poetic prose than legal jargon, but this phrase—unbeknownst to most casual fliers—actually denotes the five official rights that make international air travel possible.

The first four are simple, essentially outlining an airline’s right to fly to (and pass over) other countries from, and on the way back to, its home country. So, for example, a United Airlines plane can fly passengers between New York and London, and pass through Canadian airspace along the way, all thanks to the first four freedoms of the air.

The fifth freedom, however, is far more interesting—and useful—for travelers. That’s because the rule makes it possible for an airline to fly between two countries when neither is its home base. Why should you care? Well, in addition to impressing your friends at trivia night, knowing about these fifth freedom routes can help you save money, earn points and miles, and have a more comfortable in-flight experience.

What are fifth freedom flights?

Fifth freedom flights carry passengers between two countries that are different from the home base of the airline operating the flight. These types of routes are allowed by aviation regulatory authorities as long as at least one segment of the flight begins or ends in the airline's home country. For example, Emirates flies from New York JFK to Milan and from Newark to Athens, but both flights then continue on to Dubai in the United Arab Emirates, where the carrier is based. Since US and European airlines also fly similar routes, the increased competition can result in some great deals on airfare.

Another example is KLM's flights from its home base of Amsterdam to Santiago, Chile, with a stop in Buenos Aires. It can sell tickets from Amsterdam to either South American city, but also for the leg between Buenos Aires and Santiago. That segment is considered a fifth freedom flight because KLM is a Dutch airline selling tickets to passengers between two cities outside of the Netherlands.

These international carriers can at times offer a better in-flight product than local carriers. For instance, on the KLM flight between Buenos Aires and Santiago, travelers might be able to fly business class on a wide-body jet, an option not typically available on short-haul domestic routes.

How do airlines get a fifth freedom flight approved?

Before an airline can fly a new fifth freedom route, it must be approved by all three countries involved—which, as you can imagine, can result in lengthy negotiations. If approved, they can be a boon for international airlines looking to substantiate a new, long-distance flight by scheduling the aircraft with an extra stop along the way. Not every destination can fill a plane with passengers, so pairing up a route with another nearby city makes sense from an efficiency standpoint.

For decades, multi-stop flights (affectionately called “milk runs”) were the norm, at least until more fuel-efficient, longer-range aircraft were developed. And in some remote markets like Alaska or between smaller Pacific islands, these continue today, but they are not fifth freedom flights since they tend to be operated by a local carrier.

Why do airlines operate fifth freedom flights?

Fifth freedom flights were originally created in 1944 during the Chicago Convention, a meeting responsible for many of today's aviation norms. Today, fifth freedom flights help an airline fly to more international cities economically. For example, the aforementioned KLM flight between Amsterdam and either Buenos Aires or Santiago may not be commercially viable enough for KLM to operate two independent flights over such a long distance. In addition, it is also not the most efficient use of an airplane given the long travel times needed to cross continents and multiple sets of crews required to operate them (with rest breaks in between flights). Combining the two cities gives an airline greater flexibility. At the same time, the flights give travelers more choices and stimulate competition.

Many airlines currently operate fifth freedom flights like these, especially to destinations that cannot warrant their own standalone flight service. In Africa, Turkish, KLM, and Brussels Airlines are just a few of the carriers to fly from their hub to two cities on the continent using the same plane.

How can travelers use these flights to their advantage?

Fifth freedom flights can be an opportunity to get a better experience out of comparable or even cheaper airfare on the same route. These routes can sometimes be flown by much nicer (and bigger) planes than local airlines might offer since these routes are usually extensions of another long-haul flight.

Compared to some US-based airlines, international carriers operating a fifth freedom flight from American cities can offer a better cabin experience, with better food, more comfortable seats, and other perks. For example, Emirates is now using an A380 between JFK and Milan, which adds intense capacity to the route, bringing fares down while offering what many see as a superior level of service than what American or Italian carriers offer. This covers all cabins, but none more than Emirates' famous first class suites, complete with an inflight shower. These flights have extra hidden perks too. Typically reserved for its longest flights, KLM’s coveted Delft houses are even offered as a gift in business class on the Dutch airline’s fifth-freedom flights.

And here's a secret only savvy fliers know: Fifth freedom flights are a key to finding overlooked frequent flier award seats on certain flights around the world. To help fill seats on shorter sectors with less demand, airlines release more award availability—which helps them cover the operating cost of adding these additional fifth freedom stops.

For aviation lovers, fifth-freedom flights can be bucket-list experiences. This author even chose a one-stop flight that made a detour when traveling between Bali and Tokyo for the sole purpose of taking one of KLM’s fifth-freedom flights via Singapore. The prize? A Delft house for business class passengers (something neither Indonesian nor Japanese airlines would offer). KLM’s business class price was the same price as what other airlines were charging in economy on the same route.

Some notable fifth freedom flights from the US include routes like Emirates' newly announced flight between Miami and Bogota starting in June; and Singapore Airlines’ daily New York JFK-Frankfurt and Houston-Manchester flights (both continue to Singapore). Across the Pacific, Singapore flies between LAX and Tokyo Narita, too.

Flights from Newark and Washington Dulles to Lome, Togo, are flown regularly on Ethiopian Airlines (the flight, which alternates between the two US Star Alliance hub departure points depending on the day of the week, continues to Ethiopia from Togo). Ethiopian also offers a fifth-freedom flight from New York JFK to Abidjan, Ivory Coast, before continuing on to Ethiopia’s capital Addis Ababa.

Both Emirates and Ethiopian fly a fifth freedom route between Bangkok and Hong Kong. Emirates uses the A380 on both this flight and another fifth freedom route between Sydney and Christchurch, New Zealand, making it a great way to sample the carrier’s famed first-class showers without breaking the bank.

LATAM and Malaysia Airlines fly between Sydney and Auckland, usually with cheap fares and plenty of available mileage redemption seats. Air France flies between Los Angeles and Papeete, Tahiti. For a touch of Polynesian flair, you can also fly Air Tahiti Nui from both Los Angeles and Seattle/Tacoma to Paris.

Qantas can take you from New York JFK nonstop to Auckland; Emirates has direct flights between Barcelona and Mexico City; and Kenya Airways will take you from Cape Town to Victoria Falls before the same plane continues to the airline’s Nairobi base.

At the end of the day, fifth freedom flights are exciting opportunities for both international carriers and their passengers. So next time you take a look at the airport departure board, see if you can find which airline doesn’t match its flight origin or destination—and take advantage of your freedoms of the air.

This story has been updated with new information since its original publish date.

Originally Appeared on Condé Nast Traveler