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The International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) is the UN oversight agency responsible for commercial aviation. It was established during the 1944 Chicago Convention on International Civil Aviation. The ICAO works to reach general agreement on international civil aviation standards, practices, and policies among its 191 member countries. (The only countries that don’t recognize the ICAO are Cominica, Liechtenstein, and Tuvalu; of those, Tuvalu is the only one with an international airport.)
Soon after it was founded, the ICAO set out five rights of aviation, otherwise known as the Freedoms of the Air. There are an additional four that, though not officially set up by the ICAO, are recognized among most ICAO member countries.
“The Five Freedoms of the Air serve as a framework for international aviation agreements,” says Sam, manager of the Wendover Productions YouTube channel. “Each freedom has varying levels of acceptance, but every developed country worldwide grants these rights to certain foreign airlines.”
Out of all the freedoms of the air, the first two are the most complicated. Per the Chicago Convention, the first two freedoms became known as the International Air Services Transit Agreement (IASTA). Among other things, the IASTA laid out that all signatories, which excludes ICAO members such as Brazil, Russia, Indonesia, and China, could freely use the first two rights over other IASTA member states. Countries like Russia and China, however, have tight regulations on airspace, meaning that airlines have to get permission to fly into or over these countries on an individual basis.
The First Freedom
The first freedom of the air is the right of an airline to fly over a foreign country without landing. This freedom is convenient because it allows airlines to fly directly between international destinations without having to get flyover permission for every country it would fly over.
This freedom doesn’t come without a cost, however. Airlines are required to pay overflight fees to countries whose territory they pass over. Overflight fees are how airlines pay countries they fly over without landing or taking off in and are required because the jets still use Air Traffic Control (ATC) services.
Though these fees are largely universal, there are certain complications involved. For example, take the United States. The U.S. will charge foreign airlines USD$56.86 for every 100 nmi (185km) they fly over the country.
“However, U.S. is actually responsible for a huge amount of airspace, way larger than the U.S. itself,” says Sam. “It was allocated this airspace by the ICAO, and since it provides ATC for this area, it also charges overflight fees. This does mean, weirdly, that flights from Australia, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea, and other Melanesian countries pay overflight fees to the U.S. when flying to northeast Asian destinations, such as Japan, Korea, and China.”
Overflight fees over oceanic U.S. airspace is only $21.63, less than half of the fees that airlines pay when connecting Canada with Mexico or the Bahamas.
The Second Freedom
The second freedom of the air allows international airlines to make technical stops in foreign countries without loading or unloading passengers or cargo. These stops are usually made for refueling, but can also be used for general maintenance or in emergency situations.
This freedom also has certain complexities, but, in general, they aren’t as complicated as those associated with the first freedom. Per the second freedom, the U.S. can’t deny foreign IASTA airlines the use of pacific islands such as Hawaii. In the same respect, Britain can’t deny IASTA members use of Newfoundland or Bermuda.
The Third and Fourth Freedoms
The third and fourth freedoms of the air are remarkably similar, and it is extremely rare for a country to provide one without the other. Thus, they are combined in this article. The third freedom allows airlines to deliver paying passengers from its home country to a foreign country. The fourth freedom allows airlines to deliver paying passengers from a foreign country to its home country.
These rules allow, for example, an airline such as Lufthansa to deliver passengers between Germany and the United States, regardless of which direction.
The Fifth through Ninth Freedoms
Like the third and fourth freedoms, the fifth, sixth, seventh, eighth, and ninth freedoms of the air are very similar. So, like three and four, five through nine are combined.
The fifth freedom of the air is often referred to as “beyond rights”. This freedom allows airlines to carry passengers from its home country to a foreign country, then drop off passengers, pick up new ones, and carry them to a third, new country. This means that Lufthansa could carry passengers from Germany to the United States, then operate a flight between the United States and Canada.
The sixth freedom allows an airline to operate flights between two foreign countries, provided it touches down in its own country. It allows Lufthansa to operate a flight between the United States and Germany, then continue on to another European destination.
The seventh freedom allows an airline to operate a flight that originates in a foreign country, bypasses its own nation, and lands in another destination. An example of this would be if American Airlines flew a direct flight between Mexico and Canada. It never touches down in the U.S., its home country, but it flies over it.
The eighth freedom allows airlines to fly between two points in a foreign country, provided that the flight is a continuation of a flight that originated in its own country. For example, say American Airlines flies between Chicago, USA and Mexico City, Mexico. Under the eighth freedom of flying, American Airlines can then fly a direct flight to Cancun, Mexico. This rule is known as “cabotage”.
The ninth freedom is known as “stand alone cabotage”, and is very similar to rule eight except for the distinction that airlines don’t have to fly to their home country after connecting two foreign destinations in the same country. This would allow American Airlines to fly between Mexico City and Cancun without returning to the United States.
Rules eight and nine are extremely rare outside of Europe, which has a single registration method for all EU member states. This has helped budget airlines to thrive by providing cheap flights between destinations in other European countries.
“It’s extremely rare for [freedoms eight and nine] to be granted, except for in the European Union,” says Sam. “The EU 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.”