Fifth Freedom Flights: The Day United Left Me Stranded With An Illegal Ticket

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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

United new booking without Fifth Freedom flight problem

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.

Hotels.com cancelation policy on twitter

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.

The responses below are not provided or commissioned by any advertiser or bank advertiser. Responses have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any advertiser. It is not any advertiser's responsibility to ensure all posts and/or questions are answered.

26 COMMENTS

  1. This is the perfect opportunity for the local news channel to feature your story. That should get the airline company off its butt and do something

  2. I had an issue similar to this on TK a few years ago (it was featured on Loyalty Lobby Wednesdays). I had a UA award ticket, and the second part of it (I guess the excursionist perk nowadays) was TLV-IST-SSH. That was in January 2016, shortly after the Metrojet crash and some other incidents. Apparently TK decided not to fly to SSH anymore, but didn’t tell me or UA, the ticket showed the flight on my itinerary online right up until I got to the airport. It wouldn’t let me check in online, when I got to the desk they only printed out my flight to IST. They told me to get on the flight to IST, they couldn’t do anything about it in TLV or on the phone, and I had to leave the country since they had checked me in for the flight already?
    In IST it was ridiculous, the in person agents were rude and no help at all…I spent a miserable 12 hours in the IST airport continually going back to the IST TK office and begging them to let me use the phone bc mine was US-only to contact someone who could help if they couldn’t…finally was able to get a flight to CAI 3 days after I was supposed to be in Egypt. Neither TK or UA claimed any responsibility for notifying me the flight was cancelled and the destination no longer was valid.
    UA gave me 10k miles, but only after I submitted it to Loyalty Lobby and it was published. I was on my own for expenses- lost my non-refundable hotel in Egypt, never got to Sinai/Sharm, and had to pay for couple nights lodging/food/etc in IST, and my visa (wasn’t expecting to go into Turkey, just transit the airport).

  3. Seems to me that United really went above and beyond for you here. This was not even remotely their fault. Turkish not only posted the flight as available, they would have confirmed it back to United when you booked it. United can’t ticket it without Turkish confirming it. It is not united’s Responsibility to confirm that what their partners are offering are legal flights.

    • Agreed to some extent. Turkish confirmed it, which is a big problem, but only United was showing this flight. None of the other Star Alliance partners offered it. Looking back, that should’ve made me pause. Something in United’s system was offering flights they should never have offered (and no one else was offering, so I don’t know if it was “Turkish put it out there” vs “United pulled bad data”), so that was their bad. Turkish confirmed it, which was their bad. They both messed up. I agree that United really did the right thing after I was home. People love to trash on United, but I was completely satisfied with their post-trip follow-up process to correct this.

  4. Seems like more than a coincidence that your issue involved United and Turkish Air. I had a flight on Turkish, booked on United, from Boston to Istanbul that was cancelled at 1 AM after a luggage truck struck the plane. It took Turkish 2 hours to gather contact info for rebooking passengers and getting them to hotels (including calling the state police to the airport to quell a passenger uprising). At 4 AM I called Turkish Air when we got settled in the hotel and was told I would be called in the AM. Next morning no call. Other passengers had been ticketed. Turkish Air office didn’t open til 6 PM and there was no one to call. Eventually I thought to call United and got rebooked. We were never contacted by Turkish Air!

    • My general take on Turkish from my experience and reading about others’ is this: good product when flying. If there’s an issue, good luck trying to even find someone to talk to.

  5. “Definitely verified. This route has no fifth freedom.” I’m confused-so this is or nit a fifth freedom flight? It is by geography but what do you mean there
    Speaking of fifth freedom flights the popular CX YVR-JFK route is being discontinued.

    • This TK flight starts in Istanbul, stops in Seychelles, then continues to Comoros. It has NO fifth freedom on SEZ-HAH for that final leg. You can’t ride that part without starting in Istanbul. I have verified that there is no fifth freedom here with TK for this leg.
      Does that make sense?

      • Sorry, I am confused. How can you check if you’re booking a valid/legal 5th freedom flight instead of an illegal one? Not sure how the SEZ – HAH is illegal when it was a real route offered by Turkish airlines

        • Actually, it was offered by mistake, it seems. SEZ-HAH as a solo route has no 5th Freedom rights. If you want to check to make sure you can actually fly a route before booking it, go to the actual airline operating the flight and see if you can book it with cash. Some glitch in the United & Turkish awards system allowed booking this. It wasn’t bookable (not then, not now) with cash. Also, it is a “real route” in that planes fly it, but that doesn’t mean it’s a route you can fly without getting on in Istanbul. I was able to book by system error, but that error allowing me to book doesn’t mean it was a legal routing option.

    • That was my earlier experience, also. It’s not so much “customer service” as “make customer go away”.

  6. I would write to Turkish CEO as well and tweet them a storm too if you don’t get a timely reply. They had confirmed your booking yet treated you as if you were a criminal. If Turkish “never allows anyone to get on for only this leg” it should’ve raised a red flag long before you showed up at the airport. If you know the name of the manager who was so rude with you, that could help too.

    Maybe it won’t lead to anything, but you might be surprised.

  7. My understanding is that while some fifth freedom flights are illegal when booked alone (US domestic QF flights), many are completely legal such as the former AU-NZ EK flights. It’s a case-by-case scenario.

    Did you verify with TK that this was indeed a flight that’s illegal and not the manager on a power trip?

    I know UA looked into it but for someone in the CEO’s office not to know what fifth freedom is a HUGE red flag, especially for the airline that run the most well known fifth freedom flights, the island hopper route. I’d be skeptical of the agent’s interpretation regardless of the office they work in.

    • Definitely verified. This route has no fifth freedom. I also talked to airline employees who confirmed that Turkish never allows anyone to get on for only this leg, which is why there was no check-in counter open. Agreed, not knowing what Fifth Freedom is for me was a learning experience but also a “how was I supposed to know?” For her to not know the term surprised me.
      And correct that Fifth Freedom flights are all case-by-case.

  8. When you searched Kayak and saw a price of $800 for this itinerary, I am assuming that the Turkish flight was not one of the purchasable options.

    After reading the story, I think you let them off the hook easy. This is a pretty egregious mistake–stranding a passenger with no alternative way to their destination.

    • ZFVFlyer – no, it was this exact flight showing $800 cash price. I don’t know what Kayak came up with to show that flight as available. It no longer shows a booking option for this on Kayak, which is good to know. I probably should’ve argued with them some more, but I returned from my trip a full 3 weeks later. I’d calmed down a good bit and was happy that they were doing SOMETHING (this was the summer of the dead dog & beat-up passenger) but also just wanted to move on.

    • From the start you sound like “Zohar passenger” typical pain in the ass. You can get the Turkish confirmation codes on line. Just look at your united reservation. No need to be messaging people on Twitter. Vegan..typical.

      Calling the CEOs office and flexing the “I’m a travel blogger muscle”. Typical.

      You got stuck. It sucks. United made it right. No need to bitch and moan about not seeing the Comoros islands to any other parties.

      • Actually, the confirmation code wasn’t available online, which is why I had to ask for it (included in the screen shots). At no point did I say “I’m a travel blogger” in this article or contacts with anyone at United, so you’re making things up here. Not sure why it was necessary to come on here calling names, making things up, and insulting me, but I hope it makes you feel better. Have a great day 🙂

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