Why Did Pan Am Operate So Many Fifth Freedom Flights?

For over 60 years, Pan Am grew as a dominant operator of international flights from the US. While it is this legacy it is remembered for; it also became one of the largest ever operators of fifth freedom flights between other cities. Many of these started as a method to promote viable growth on long-haul operations and went on to become important routes in their own right.

Pan AM 747
Pan Am was known for US routes but also operated many fifth freedom flights. Photo: Getty Images

The fifth freedom

First, a quick recap on what a fifth freedom flight is. In simplest terms, it is a flight between two countries that are not the operating airline’s home base. It is permitted as part of a flight to or from the airline’s base. As an example – Singapore Airlines operates flights from Singapore to Frankfurt and on to New York. It is permitted to sell tickets for the Frankfurt to New York sector as a fifth freedom flight.

Pre-pandemic, Singapore Airlines operated an A380 between Frankfurt and New York. Photo: Getty Images

Fifth freedoms flights require agreements from all governments involved and can be complex to negotiate. There are, in fact, nine defined ‘freedoms.’ First freedom conveys the right to overfly a state; second to stop for technical purposes. And third and fourth freedoms allow airlines to carry passengers to or from a base.

Fifth freedom and growth of long-haul flights

Fifth freedom flights were conceived as part of the Chicago Convention on International Civil Aviation in December 1944. In these early days of aviation, such routes were vital for many airlines operating international flights. Several stops were common on long routes, and restricting airlines only to carry passengers between bases would be very limiting. In short, they made long-haul operations economically viable.

Several airlines that expanded internationally at this time made use of such routes. Qantas, TWA, and BOAC all had multi-leg flights with fifth freedom agreements.

Qantas Empire Airways
Qantas Empire Airways flew from Sydney to London over several days – multiple stops and fights were essential. Photo: Qantas

Pan American World Airways (Pan Am) though stands out though for its extensive network. Founded in 1927, it grew during the 1930s as an international focussed airline. The US aviation sector was highly regulated, and Pan Am was unable to move into domestic flights. Deregulation in 1978 changed this, of course, but growing competition would eventually lead to Pan Am’s demise.

Pan Am’s fifth freedom routes

The airline’s first routes were with flying boats, first to the Caribbean and South America, and then transatlantic. It first used smaller aircraft from Consolidated Aircraft, The Martin Company, and Sikorsky. This picked up in 1939, with Pan Am working with Boeing to launch the Boeing 314 flying boat. This was larger than any before – and crucially could operate transatlantic and transpacific.

Boeing 314 Clipper
Pam Am expanded international service with the Boeing 314 – still in the age of needing many en-route stops. Photo: Getty Images

Its relationship with Boeing continued into the jet age as the launch customer for both the 707 and 747. And as both routes, and aviation use, grew, fifth freedom flights became more important. Pan Am operated such routes through the Americas, Europe, and Asia.

In Europe, Frankfurt was a major center for fifth freedom routes. Routes to many European, Middle Eastern, and Asian cities (including Athens, Zurich, Bucharest, London, Warsaw, Istanbul, Belgrade, Delhi, Bombay, and Karachi) ran from Frankfurt. These had to be part of an onward route to the US, but the airline could change operating aircraft. After Pan Am’s collapse in 1991, Delta Air Lines took over the Frankfurt hub and continued many of the fifth freedom flights for several years.

Boeing 727
The Boeing 727 was often used by Pan Am for European flights. Photo: Getty Images

Berlin was a notable exception to this. As US carriers were allowed to operate from West Berlin (as well as French and British operators), Pan Am had significant operations from Berlin which did not have to continue to the US. This video gives some insight into Pan Am’s Berlin operations:

Frankfurt was not the only such base in Europe. Pan Am also based crews in London and Warsaw for European flights.  Paris to Tel Aviv was another popular route.

Pan Am Frankfurt
Pan Am’s Frankfurt base in the 1980s. Photo: Roland Arhelger via Wikimedia

And routes in Asia

Pan Am also operated several fifth freedom routes in Asia, including Tokyo to Hong Kong, and Hong Kong to Bangkok and Singapore.

Again, these began as historical connections, enabling the growth and viable operation of long-haul. But they became profitable operations for the airlines in their own right, with Pan Am operating daily 747s on the routes. Pressure from growing Asian airlines eventually led to restrictions, but some operations continued after United Airlines took over Pan Am’s Pacific operations.

United has even recently moved to bring back one of these routes. In May 2020, it filed for permission to operate fifth freedom Hong Kong to Singapore flights. This would initially be for cargo, but with plans to expand to passenger service. We will have to see what happens to this post-COVID.

United 777
United Airlines took on Pan Am’s Pacific routes and is re-starting one. Photo: Getty Images

Fifth freedom routes today

United trying to resume service on a historic Pan Am route raises an interesting question about the role of fifth freedom flights today. Longer, non-stop flights have in past years eliminated many routes.

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But we have also seen some airlines expand them. For example, Emirates operates a large number (and recently confirmed it would resume Athens to Newark), and KLM has several Asian and Middle Eastern routes. As airlines resume flights after the pandemic, and as passenger volumes remain lower, could we see more airlines look into fifth freedom flights once again as a way to make long routes viable?

Would you like to share any experiences of Pan Am’s fifth freedom network? Or discuss more recent changes in fifth freedoms flights? Let us know in the comments.