DALLAS – On December 7, 1944, fifty-two states from all around the world met in Chicago to discuss and approve the legal framework that would accompany the development of aviation in the coming years. After that meeting, the United Nations Civil Aviation Department, the ICAO, was established.
ICAO members would go on to publish five freedoms that every signing country should grant any airline that ever planned to operate to, from, or through their airspace. The idea was to maintain a united and globalized aviation market in the future.
Today, we will discuss the Five Freedoms of the Air, established by the ICAO in 1944.
The Freedom of Peaceful Transit
The first freedom of the air states that every airline has the right to overfly a foreign country. Unless a flight is operated between two neighboring countries, this freedom is present in almost any flight in the world.
It may seem strange, but the airspace over the territory of a country is technically the sovereign territory of that nation. As a result, countries can apply legislation and enforce restrictions on aircraft entering their airspace, just like a police officer can fine a Mexican car driving through a US road.
Overflight fees are one of the most significant restrictions a country can impose on flights within its airspace. These are established payments that carriers need to make in order to be allowed to use any resource inside foreign airspace, and they can be so influential that they may even force an airline to avoid certain countries.
An insane number of flights between North America and Europe tend to route over countries such as Canada, which has taken advantage of that, implementing expensive overflight fees.
Consequently, some airlines, especially long-range low-cost carriers, prefer to extend their flight times by avoiding Canadian airspace through the United States, as burning some extra fuel is sometimes more economical than paying overflight fees to Canada.
Safety and Security above the Clouds
A country can prohibit certain carriers from entering its airspace for safety reasons. The European Union periodically updates a blacklist that bans airlines from flying within its airspace. Today, the list contains 112 operators.
Most of them are from Africa and the Middle East, but most recently, 21 Russian airlines, after being isolated from western manufacturers’ parts and maintenance, no longer comply with the safety requirements stated by the EU.
In addition to to safety, countries can also decide to block overflights for strategic reasons. Russia, for example, as it didn’t sign the Peaceful Transit agreement back in 1944, has the power to decide where a specific airline is or is not allowed to fly over its territory.
There was a common belief that, before the start of the war in Ukraine, Russia had the tradition of only allowing one European carrier per country to overfly Siberia on routes to Asia.
That’s why you were only able to see airlines such as British Airways (BA), SAS (SK), Lufthansa (LH), or KLM (KL) flying over Russia, but did not ever see Condor (DE) or Norwegian (DU) flights routing over Siberia.
Not granting permission to overfly a country can have enormous consequences, reflected mainly in fuel costs and added flight hours. A perfect example of this is a flight of a Russian Government IL-96 operating a flight between Moscow (VKO) and Madrid (MAD) without having permission to use the airspace of any UE member country.
What seemed initially a routine four-hour flight, ended up lasting more than eight hours due to the restrictions imposed by the European Union on Russia.
The Freedom of Non-Traffic Stop
The second freedom of the air is the right for any airline to perform a technical stop at any airport to refuel, get repaired, or seek refuge. Today, this is almost impossible to see unless for emergency reasons, but back in the early days of aviation, the freedom of non-traffic stops was one of the most crucial in the world.
At the time of the signing of the Chicago Convention Treaties in 1944, no commercial aircraft was able to fly from the US East Coast to Central and Eastern Europe non-stop. The short range of airplanes such as the Boeing 377 Stratocruiser or the Lockheed Constellation forced airlines to make refueling stops on most transatlantic routes.
Airports such as Shannon (SNN) or St. John’s (YYT), which today receive no more than 30 daily flights, were very important stopover points on the ends of both continents in the 1950s and received hundreds of flights looking to refuel.
With the improved range of modern-day aircraft, these situations are no longer common, with the exception of flights between Australia and New Zealand towards Europe and the American East Coast.
Airlines such as Qantas (QF) are investing heavily in ultralong-range aircraft like the A350-1000ULR, which would eventually enable the opening in the near future of the first ever non-stop regular service from Sydney to New York and London: the so-called ‘Project Sunrise’.
During the cold war, as the Soviet Union prohibited almost any foreign airline from flying into their territory, airlines needed to figure out strategies to get from Europe to Asian destinations in the most efficient way.
While not efficient at all, the only possibility for carriers in the 1940s and 50s was to operate short hops across Europe and Asia with short-range aircraft that sometimes lasted up to 88 hours on flights between London and Tokyo.
However, with the introduction of polar routes by Scandinavian Airlines in 1954, companies opted to switch their routings the other way around, offering now passenger flights between Europe and Japan avoiding north Siberia with only one big refueling stop in Anchorage (ANC).
Ted Steven’s Airport became in the 1960s one of the most cosmopolitan and transited cities in the world, with passengers sharing cultures from all the countries one could imagine, as it received flights from big airlines like Air France (AF), BOAC, Japan Airlines (JL) or Korean Air (KE) just thanks to its perfect geographic locations.
Although not anymore for passengers, Anchorage functions today the same way by receiving dozens of daily flights from cargo airlines, which prefer to make a refueling stop on their routes between Asia and America, in order to transport more cargo in their holds.
The Third and Fourth Freedoms
The third and fourth freedoms of the air are always granted together. These are the right to transport passengers or cargo from one country to another, and the right to fly from another country back to the origin with newly booked passengers.
It may seem obvious at first. It would be quite illogical for an airline to not fly back from a destination to its hub without picking up new paying passengers, as this would be a quite stupid way of losing money by flying empty planes.
However, there is a specific market that functions exactly like that: charter flights. Charter flights are a different type of revenue an airline can make, by scheduling specific flights between two regularly unconnected airports after a special request from a certain company.
Some of the most common charter flights happen due to important events that move large masses of travelers such as sports matches or big conferences. If an English soccer team is playing far away in Argentina, for example, the club will charter two or three flights destined exclusively to transport the team members, directors, and fans.
Of course, this would mean that, after transporting all those people to their destination, the chartered aircraft no longer has a purpose, and usually it flies back to the airline’s hub empty, on what’s known as a “ferry flight.”
The Freedom Of Intermediate Passenger Flow
Coming down to the fifth freedom of the air, the freedom of intermediate passenger flow gave initially airlines the possibility to take advantage of refueling stops to discharge and pick up new passengers during the layover.
In a typical example, a Qantas (QF) Airbus A380, operating a Sydney (SYD) to London (LHR) flight with a technical stop in Dubai (DXB) is allowed to offer tickets to three types of passengers: the ones flying the entire routing SYD-LHR, passengers terminating their journey in DXB and also newly booked passengers from DXB to LHR.
In that way, the airline is able to connect to the requests of multiple passengers at the same time, while operating just one flight with one specific aircraft. The easiest way to identify these operations is by looking at their flight numbers: if it remains the same for both phases of the flight, then you will be looking at a flight being operated under the rules of the 5th freedom of the air.
It is typical for airlines to open 5th freedom flights through other partner airlines’ hubs. For example, Singapore Airlines (SQ) operates the daily flight SQ26 between Changi Airport (SIN) and New York (JFK) via Frankfurt (FRA) with the Airbus A380, as the german stopover airport is the hub for Lufthansa, one of the biggest Star Alliance members.
As direct A380 flights between Singapore and the US East coast are not possible due to the long distance, SQ would logically choose to make the stop at the biggest European Star Alliance hub, to benefit from newly booked passengers flying to America that prefer to experience the Singapore Airlines product. Additionally, this flight shares a code with Lufthansa as LH9763.
Another example of a 5th Freedom flight was the daily SCL-FRA connection LATAM Airlines (LA) offered until 2019 with the Dreamliner, which made a stop in Madrid (MAD). In this case, however, LA took advantage of the long turnarounds for flights to South America to operate an additional separate intra-European flight between Madrid and Frankfurt, as we explained here.
Freedoms that Liberated the Aviation Market
Thanks to the approval of the ICAO Five Freedoms Of The Air Treaty, airlines such as Ryanair (FR), Norwegian (NZ), and SQ were created and function today.
The Chicago Convention did not only sign and applied the legal framework airlines follow today but also created the first rock of the giant world every company and airport developed from and around.
Without them, no one could ever imagine the insane opportunities the global market would be losing today in the building of a unique and united way of travel which is commercial aviation.
Featured image: Adrian Nowakowski/Airways