Why Emirates wants to boost fifth-freedom Airbus A380 service from NYC, but can’t

Nov 29, 2019

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While U.S. carriers have scaled back on aggressive tactics following a famously challenging White House meeting earlier this year, the ongoing Open Skies dispute likely remains top of mind for a number of executives, including Emirates president Sir Tim Clark. Still, in a recent meeting with the top airline exec, Clark didn’t shy away from discussing an especially prickly topic for U.S.-based airlines: adding more fifth-freedom flights.

Fifth-freedom flights — between two countries, operated by a carrier based in a third — can be especially lucrative for international carriers, and they’re entirely legal, with FAA approval. One of Emirates‘ most successful flies daily between New York-JFK and Milan (MXP), offering a suite of amenities passengers would never dream of encountering on a U.S. carrier.

(Photo by JT Genter/The Points Guy)
Passengers flying at the pointy end on Emirates get access to not one, but two onboard showers. Photo by JT Genter/The Points Guy.

While often a go-to for travelers, fifth-freedom flights are decidedly less popular among the top U.S. airline execs — after all, why would United Airlines want Emirates to fly a super-posh shower-equipped A380 between New York-JFK and Milan (MXP) when the best it currently offers from Newark (EWR) is an aging 767-400ER with 2-1-2 business seats?

United's 2-1-2 business class, the carrier's best offering between Newark (EWR) and Milan (MXP). Photo by Zach Honig/The Points Guy.
United’s 2-1-2 business class, the carrier’s best offering between Newark (EWR) and Milan (MXP). Photo by Zach Honig/The Points Guy.


During our meeting at the Dubai Air Show, Clark said that the fifth-freedom flights are an important tool for Emirates to expand its North American profile, though he acknowledged the incredibly limited impact on the carrier’s bottom line.

“It doesn’t drive our business model at all,” Clark said. “The number of fifth-freedom flights we have is less than 1%.”

Still, the carrier continues to eye a North American expansion, most recently getting approval to fly a Boeing 777-200LR between Barcelona (BCN) and Mexico City (MEX). Emirates has been looking to add capacity between the U.S. and Europe, too — when it launched service between Newark and Athens (ATH), the carrier hoped to fly an Airbus A380 between the two cities, Clark said. Unfortunately, Newark can’t accommodate an aircraft of that size, and Emirates couldn’t land another slot at JFK — an issue that’s impacting its even more popular Milan nonstop.

Clark said that JFK-Milan A380 is incredibly popular with fashion industry leaders, some of whom fly between Milan and New York “once a week.” And it isn’t just Milan-bound flyers onboard — Clark said one high-profile customer told him that he’s even driven the rest of the way from Milan to Frankfurt, just so he could travel on the Emirates A380.

“That flight is completely full all the time,” Clark said. “Every single flight is full. We should have two on there, but I can’t get the slots into JFK.”

Featured photo by EyesWideOpen/Getty Images.

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