What is cabotage?

Cabotage is the right to operate aircraft within a particular territory. No foreign operator may operate a domestic trip in another country; for example, an aircraft with a U.S. (N-registered) tail number cannot fly from Puerto Vallarta to Cancun. However, that same aircraft could enter Mexico to pick up its passengers, as long as they then fly to another country.

Cabotage helps countries protect their domestic flights for locally registered aircraft, as it means they have no competition. As a result, all domestic flights within the United States are guaranteed to be flown by aircraft with N-registered tail numbers.

Private jet chartering is centered around being flexible, but that doesn’t mean operators and brokers can do whatever they like. For example, there may be many one-way or multi-leg flights they wish to fill, but if the aircraft is penciled in for a domestic flight – yet registered in a different country – it will have to claim cabotage rights.

This also stops foreign entities from operating large fleets of aircraft within another country, which helps preserve sovereign borders and avoid the threat of militarization.

If a country has no fleet of aircraft, this means one of two things:

  • You cannot fly privately into the country to perform a domestic flight
  • You can be granted special permission to perform such a flight via the country’s civil aviation authority

All passengers must be on the flight manifest, so you can’t add passengers ad hoc on such domestic flights. The aircraft must also take off and leave with the same passengers onboard – no exceptions.

Things are more flexible when leaving the country. International flights can carry as many passengers as required; for example, an international flight can land in New York with 10 passengers, and then pick up five additional passengers in Washington D.C. before returning to New York. However, it would not be allowed to fly new passengers from New York to Washington, D.C.

Another exception occurs when you jet around selected countries within Europe, as flights within the European Union (EU) do not have to adhere to the usual rules of cabotage. This helps promote free trade and makes for easier travel for citizens. However, this doesn’t apply to all countries in Europe – only those that are members of the EU. Switzerland, Belarus, and Kosovo are examples of European countries which aren’t part of the E.U.

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