United Airlines Seeks Hong Kong Singapore Fifth Freedom Approval

On Tuesday, United Airlines requested that it be allowed to reinstate its fifth freedom flight between Singapore and Hong Kong. While the flights starting on the 10th of May will be cargo only, the airline wants to keep options open to transport passengers at a later stage.

United Airlines 777
United intends to operate its reinstated fifth freedom route with a Boeing 777. Photo: United Airlines

Beginning this Sunday

While passenger traffic is at an all-time low across the world (apart from Brazil), commercial airlines transporting cargo is making for some interesting route-related news.

In an application to the Department of Transportation submitted on the 5th of May, United has requested it be allowed to recommence fifth freedom operations between Hong Kong and Singapore. For now, the airline only intends to transport cargo. Approved, it will begin operating the route daily with a Boeing 777-300 from the 10th of May.

A spokesperson for United provided Simple Flying with the following statement:

“United Airlines is planning to start San Francisco – Hong Kong – Singapore cargo-only service with its passenger aircraft, in mid-May, subject to government approval. (…) The new service will provide critically-needed additional cargo capacity between the US and Southeast Asia. United hopes to receive necessary approvals in time for the service launch.”

Cargo-only, for now

While the carrier plans first to launch cargo-only services, its request keeps the option open to carry persons on the route as well. “Depending on the rebound in passenger traffic, United may commence passenger service at a future date,” it said in an application footnote.

United is applying for the allocation of seven weekly fifth freedom combination frequencies to permit the airline to provide air transportation of “persons, property, and mail” between the two destinations. It would thus be able to add passenger services at a later stage, without applying for new permission.

United planes SFO
United previously operated several intra-Asia routes before the arrival of planes like the Dreamliner made them obsolete. Photo: Getty Images

Return to familiar skies

This will not be the first time United will have operated this fifth freedom route. The airline took over Hong Kong – Singapore from Pan Am when it purchased the latter’s Pacific unit in 1985. However, in 2017, United began a new nonstop service between San Fransisco and Singapore, making the Hong Kong stopover obsolete.

Now, with recalibrating for a long and slow recovery process for air travel demand, it makes sense to bring back (potential) commercial routes like this, serving two destinations and optimizing capacity. It would not be the only airline retreating from pushing a nonstop agenda further.

United 787 Cargo
United says the flights will provide critically needed cargo capacity between the US and Asia. Photo: United Airlines

Singapore last in long list of cargo-only destinations

United has been operating 40 cargo-only flights per week since the 23rd of March, using a combination of Boeing 777 and 787 aircraft. It has been flying military mail from an to US bases and supplies to places like Amsterdam, Frankfurt, Shanghai, and Hong Kong. Most likely, by the end of the week, it can add Singapore to that list.

Do you think we will see a return to more fifth freedom routes as international travel demand might take a long time to recover? Let us know your thoughts in the comments. 

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