I just got back from the CAPA Aeropolitical and Aviation Summit, and it opened my eyes to the massive amount of pull and push of how there is a labyrinth of laws and politics that governs how people like you and me fly. Aviation is a global business, it is a complex business with a lot of moving parts, making it very important to understand what works how to make sure we get where we want to go together.
In 1944, the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) was formed to coordinate and regulate international air travel. The Chicago Convention of 1944, which mandated this organisation to be formed, had 52 signatories when it was first ratified, and as of date has 192 countries as a member.
The treaty mandates that every state has complete and exclusive sovereignty over the airspace above its territory. It also mandates that no scheduled international flights can fly over or inside a State without the authorisation of the state. The statute of this treaty came under question at the conference, with many participants wondering if a new set of rules was needed, given air traffic is vastly more complicated now than it was in the 1940s. No conclusion was reached, and so, we must go on with the current treaty at the moment.
Freedom to fly is also classified by the ICAO, and there are many different kinds of rights that they grant to airlines to use the airspace of other countries. These rights can be classified into two broad ranges, transit rights and traffic rights. Transit rights allow you to fly over a country without picking up passengers, and traffic rights allow you to pick up and drop off passengers in another country.
The First Freedom of the Air allows for the right to fly over other countries to reach your destination. This is the most basic of rights, something we take as customers as a given, but is dictated by the contracts of 1944. For instance, an aircraft flying from Delhi to Dubai flies over Pakistan and Iran before arriving into Dubai. Airlines may be required to pay for the privilege of overflying a country. So, while IndiGo may decide to take the shortest route over both the countries and hence overfly both of them, Air India may just decide to go over Pakistan and not Iran.
The First Freedom is essential to the being of air travel, however, it is not something that is imposed over countries and they have to be signatories to the International Air Transit Services Agreement to be able to share their airspace. It can be complicated dealing with states which don’t subscribe to this agreement, such as Saudi Arabia, which for years would not provide overflight rights to aircraft headed to Israel. They made an exception for Air India to be able to overfly Saudi Arabia to arrive at Tel Aviv, but won’t give the same permissions to El Al of Israel. This means El Al has to take a longer route to arrive to Mumbai, flying through the Red Sea instead of flying over Saudi Arabia.
The Second Freedom of the Air talks about the right to land in another country for non-traffic purposes. The genesis of this right lies in the 1940s, when air travel was not as sophisticated as it is today, and aircraft would need to hop at many different airports on their way to their eventual destination, to get fuel. Today, this right is needed for emergency landings.
For example, an Air India flight between Delhi and San Francisco last year was diverted to Japan when a passenger on board developed a heart condition and needed urgent medical attention which could not have been provided on the aircraft. If IndiGo ever decides to fly from Delhi to London Gatwick on the A321 aircraft, as is much talked about, it would need a fuel stop, which would come through under the second freedom rights.
Third Freedom of the air focusses on the right granted by one country to bring its passengers from the other country. For instance, the rights granted by India for British Airways and Virgin Atlantic to put down passengers in India and similarly, for the UK to have Jet Airways and Air India put down passengers in the UK. Again, it isn’t a done deal to have Third Freedom of the Air forever. For instance, Qatar lost the rights to operate flights to Bahrain and Saudi Arabia when these two countries, and other Gulf countries, imposed the blockade on Qatar in June 2017.
The Fourth Freedom of the air, essentially grants the rights for one country to bring traffic back from the second one on aircraft registered in their country. To use the above example again, the rights granted by India for British Airways and Virgin Atlantic to have passengers originate from India and similarly, for UK to allow Jet Airways and Air India to pick up passengers in the UK.
The Third and Fourth freedom rights, put together, are what airlines and governments call bilateral rights where they negotiate for how many passengers would they allow to originate and terminate in their land from the other country. Some countries may take an open skies approach. For instance, the EU will sign an agreement with Qatar later this year, which should allow unlimited access to carriers of Qatar and the 28 EU nations to launch as many scheduled flights to each other’s territories once in effect.
And Fifth Freedom in the Air is the most interesting one. It allows for airlines to pick up passengers from another country on their way to the destination country. This happens far more often as we would like to think of it, and many airlines do operate such routes. As an example, Singapore Airlines flies an A380 aircraft daily between New York and Frankfurt. Closer home, Air India operates on and off a fifth freedom flight between London and Newark. The flight used to fly between Ahmedabad and London and Newark, so passengers originating in Ahmedabad could go to London or to Newark, and similarly, new passengers could board in London to fly to Newark. Jet Airways also flies a fifth freedom flight between Amsterdam and Toronto on a daily basis.
These aeropolitical nuances make for some interesting experiences and could allow for some interesting flights. For instance, you could choose to fly Emirates between Bangkok and Hong Kong, or between Milan and New York, apart from the other local carriers and experience some world class hospitality or cheap fares along the way.
Ajay Awtaney is a business travel & aviation journalist based in Mumbai, and the founder of the Indian frequent-traveller website Live From A Lounge (www.livefromalounge.com.) Ajay flies over 200,000 miles every year, and tweets about The Business of Travel at @LiveFromALounge.