Fifth Freedom Flight: The Day I Wound Up With an Illegal Ticket From United
In air travel, there’s something known as a “fifth freedom flight.” There are 9 “freedoms” of the air, but only the 5th one applies to me getting an illegal / never-should’ve-been-issued ticket from United to fly on Turkish Airlines. This was one of the most stressful travel days of my life, and I also learned a ton about passenger rights & air travel laws. Here’s what a Fifth Freedom flight is and how to avoid this situation in the future.
What are Fifth Freedom Flights?
In short, Fifth Freedom is when an airline from country A is allowed to carry passengers between countries B and C who didn’t ride in country A. Here’s an example of a flight I’ve taken: Ethiopian Airlines flies from Addis Ababa, Ethiopia to São Paulo, Brazil. Some people get off. New people get on, and the plane continues to Buenos Aires, Argentina. The “Fifth Freedom” part of the flight is that passengers are allowed to fly from Brazil to Argentina on an airline based out of Ethiopia, even though these passengers never went to Ethiopia on the plane.
There’s detailed information here, if you want to know more.
How did I get a Ticket Violating the Fifth Freedom Flight Rules?
That’s a great question, and I wish United had a good answer for that. On May 30, 2018, I was looking for flights to visit several of the islands off the east coast of Africa. I found that Turkish Airlines has a flight between SEZ in Seychelles and HAH in Comoros. Searching United.com, I found this flight for 17,500 miles + $50 in taxes. I searched kayak.com quickly for what the cash fare on this ticket would be, and it said a whopping $800! I thought this was great value on my points and booked it. The ticket confirmed within 2 hours, and I started making plans.
No Signs of Problems Leading up to the Day of the Flight
Between the booking and the flight date (July 11, 2018), I corresponded with both United and Turkish Airlines via Twitter. I asked United for the Turkish Airlines booking reference number, which they provided. I messaged Turkish with this information and asked for a window seat and a vegan meal. Both were confirmed by their Twitter teams. There were no signs that anything was wrong with my booking.
Online Check-in the Night Before Didn’t Work
The night before my flight, online check-in wouldn’t work. I tried multiple times but just got error messages. Checking my email and my United account, everything looked normal. I assumed this was a ‘we want to check your passport at the airport’ situation. Thinking nothing of it, I went to sleep.
Everything Falls Apart at the Airport
The next morning, I arrived at SEZ airport in Seychelles and couldn’t find the Turkish Airlines check-in counter. This is a very small airport, so not seeing the check-in area was oddly confusing. I asked an airport employee where to check-in, he expressed some confusion, and he asked someone else. This other employee pointed me to the Turkish Airlines ticket sales office to ask them.
Upon opening the door and asking about checking in, the (very rude) manager informed me she’d seen me on the passenger list last night and canceled my ticket. Say what?! She told me passengers cannot ride just between SEZ and HAH or vice versa on this flight without riding the part to Istanbul. For this, she’d canceled my ticket.
I asked why no one had contacted me before I simply showed up at the airport, and she told me I needed to contact my travel agent about that. When I pointed out that I’d booked with United, their partner (emphasizing the word “partner”), she just shrugged. In her eyes, United needed to to tell me my ticket was canceled, not Turkish, and she walked out the door. It left me and 2 ticket sales agents with our jaws on the floor. I now had a canceled ticket and also no ride off the island. The 2 agents said they also had no ability to help me on this, because they do revenue bookings only.
United Tries Everything to Not Help in My First 2 Phone Calls
Using the airport wifi, I called United’s customer service in the US and gave them my booking reference. The agent confirmed it had been canceled and that I would get my taxes & points back. My response was that this seems like a good idea on their end but doesn’t help me get off the island. I need a solution. The first 2 people I talked to were all problems and apologies but light on solutions. My 3rd call started with “I’m stranded because of a United error. Can you please help me?” This agent actually helped me out.
Changing my Plans Becomes the Solution
After Comoros, my next country to visit was Uganda. I told the United agent I needed to get off of the island in Seychelles, and canceling my ticket strands me. Since this was their error, I need them to make it right. “I need you to provide a solution, not talk about the problem.” From Comoros to Uganda, I’d also booked using United miles. Since the agent could see this in my account, she got her supervisor to approve merging the plans together. They canceled 1 ticket and got me from where I was to where I needed to be a few days later. I had to skip visiting Comoros, but I could get to Uganda the following night. I would fly Ethiopian Airlines to Addis Ababa ADD and then onto EBB in Uganda the next day, since the SEZ-ADD flight doesn’t run every day.
Next Steps for Dealing with United
While on the phone with United, I searched the internet and posted in several travel groups asking for advice. This is where I learned the term “Fifth Freedom”. I also was able to find this list of flights that have Fifth Freedom rights. Bookmark that!
Upon seeing that this problem goes beyond just customer service, a friend encouraged me to contact United’s CEO directly. I resolved to do that after being safely back home from my trip. A quick Google search quickly returned the email address. I sent an email detailing everything that had happened. I also detailed the costs I’d incurred because of this mistake.
Also in the email, I pointed out that I’d contacted United and Turkish with no one ever informing me there’d be an issue. There were multiple points of failure. Additionally, I’d found several other Fifth Freedom-violating flights bookable on United.com at that time. Other passengers could wind up in my situation, and I’d sent info about it to United’s Twitter.
I outlined my expectations for United to compensate me for my wasted time, my headaches, and my work to find other flight booking violations. I also said I expected reimbursement for extra travel costs and sent pictures of receipts. This included the fact Hotels.com has a “ask the hotel to accept last-minute cancellation” policy, and the hotel in Comoros just said no, denying my refund/cancellation. I expected United to cover that lost money.
To really drive my point home in the email, I cited how much travel I do. I then blasted them for this being the worst travel day of my life. It was hands-down the worst travel blunder any travel company has ever put me through.
United Reaches out to Apologize About Fifth Freedom Flight Problems
Within 48 hours, I had an email from someone in the CEO’s office asking when was a good time to call me. We set up a meeting for later that day. This very friendly woman called me to say she was legitimately sorry for the headaches I’d dealt with. She put herself in my shoes, which is the best thing she could do to make the situation right. She also said she’d never heard of a “Fifth Freedom flight” and did some reading about it to improve operations for the future.
They agreed to reimburse me for my extra expenses, no questions asked. This included extra taxi rides, late cancellation fees for my Comoros hotel, meals, and an extra hotel night in Seychelles.
United also offered me a $400 United travel voucher or 25,000 miles. I took the latter option, and the points were in my account within 72 hours. A check showed up in the mail about 10 days later for the reimbursement of expenses.
How to Avoid a Fifth Freedom Flight / Ticket Problem
If you’re flying an airline whose home isn’t in the starting or ending country of your flight, you need to check. You can check the list I linked above. You can go to the airline’s website and search for this flight. Can you buy this flight with cash on their website? Clearly, you can’t trust Kayak on this, which is a separate issue.
Wikipedia articles for specific airports sometimes have this information, but it’s not consistent and likely not the most up-to-date source possible. Your best bet is just trying to buy the flight in cash from the airline running the flight. If you can’t buy it, don’t book it with points.
Final Thoughts on my Fifth Freedom Flight Nightmare from United
In the end, United has taken appropriate steps to prevent this in the future. They’ve removed the violating flights I found previously. This flight isn’t bookable on their award site any longer. They reimbursed me for my expenses and offered me something for my troubles. I was satisfied with the phone call I got from the agent in the CEO’s office. I also learned something very valuable about booking Airline A using points from Source B. If you’re crossing into this territory, it won’t hurt to spend 60 seconds verifying the flight before you book it. It can help you avoid a huge headache.
I wonder what Turkish has to say about this? Their twitter team and manager originally blew me off. I should ask them what they think now.