The recent question Is the destination of a commercial flight important for the pilot? stoked my curiosity but the answers were rather explaining that a pilot does not necessarily need to know where he is flying in advance (and general planning, broadly speaking).

I was more interested to know whether a pilot can fly anywhere. To take an analogy: I have a European driving license. With it, I can drive on all public roads in France and whether I got to Bordeaux or Calais does not matter. The road can be more or less complicated but all of them are accessible to me.

I can also drive to Germany. Sure, there re some minor differences in the regulations, but everything is basically the same.

I can also drive in the US. The differences are more pronounced but at least my European driving license allows me (in short) to drive there.

How is this with pilots?

  • Are there "generic" airports all pilots can land in? I know that a special license is required to land on some (the old airport in Hong Kong for instance) , but does this mean that "any airport is OK, except the ones which require special licenses?)

  • Same question for routes: are all domestic / international / overseas routes open to all pilots? Or one needs to have a special permit to fly one of these?

I know that each airplane type requires a license (or families of aircrafts) - similarly to my driving license type B for which a family car is OK but a truck is not. My question is on routes and destinations, once you fly something you are allowed to.

  • $\begingroup$ In the US (and most areas of the world, I'd imagine), you may not land at a military facility without prior approval, or calling an emergency. However, if you do report an emergency and request to land on a military base, be prepared to be greeted by some grumpy faces and do a lot of explaining. (There's a question about that here somewhere, but I haven't searched for it.) $\endgroup$
    – FreeMan
    Commented Mar 28, 2019 at 15:03
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @FreeMan: And quite possibly the people wearing those grumpy faces will belong to people carrying automatic weapons :-) $\endgroup$
    – jamesqf
    Commented Mar 28, 2019 at 17:38
  • $\begingroup$ @jamesqf most assuredly so! $\endgroup$
    – FreeMan
    Commented Mar 28, 2019 at 18:06

5 Answers 5


In short, yes it is a lot like travel on the road. There are treaty agreements that came from the Chicago Convention on International Civil Aviation in the 1940s which allow quite a substantial freedom of international travel and cross recognition of pilot certificates.

In the USA most routes are open to most pilots, the restrictions are based on the conditions and chosen rules of flight. In an emergency the pilot is legally allowed to do anything needed to address the emergency and get the aircraft on the ground without regard for any routes or other rules, as such I will not mention the emergency exceptions for each separate item and situation.(91.3[b] in an in flight emergency requiring immediate action, the pilot may deviate from any rule of this part to the extent required to meet that emergency)

As you said for driving, the rules of driving may change by country but this applies to all drivers equally, it is mostly the same for pilots.The restrictions for pilot certificates mainly relate to the carry of passengers or cargo for hire not the location or route of flight, similar to the divide between private family car and a taxi or delivery service. Exceptions are the very limited hobby flight categories (ultralights, light-sport, and recreational) but this would be similar to a small moped or Vespa which is not allowed on highways marked above 40mph(60kph).

Flying under visual flight rules generally does not strictly adhere to designated routes. The primary designated routes are federal airways(for the space between) and preferred departure and arrival procedures(near the airport), these routes are actually designed to assist instrument flight rules flight planning and the ATC managing said IFR traffic, however following these routes while VFR is allowed. VFR is literally visual, just look out the window and see where you are traveling. Flying under instrument flight rules will require an instrument rating on your pilot certificate, however the instrument rating applies to both private and commercial certificates.

Certain airports are designated as ports of entry and have customs offices, just like old time marine ports and road border crossings; a port of entry is the first landing after crossing the border, though it may be hundreds of miles from the border. A filed flight plan is recommended to reduce border problems but not strictly required in all cases.(see Chicago convention) A port of entry is open to domestic flights just the same as any other public airport.

There are additional restrictions on the choice of route and airport for regularly scheduled commercial operations, as compared to unscheduled air-taxi and private operations. Also the practical physical limits of the airplane and landing surface; length, width, strength of pavement, climb over local obstacles, etc.

We [USA] have airspace classes A, B, C, D, E, G and "special use". A and B are positive controlled meaning that you must negotiate with ATC for clearance to enter. Most special-use are associated with military training or high security areas, though some are simply alerts or caution areas for other potential hazards such as a large flight school in the area.

  • Class A is everything between 18000 feet above sea level to flight level 650 (about 65000 feet depending on barometric pressure) and class A requires instrument flight rules which will require both filing a flight plan and an instrument rating on the pilot's certificate.
  • B is used for the busiest airports, every flight in B must talk to ATC and get explicit clearance to enter B, IFR flights get priority. When ATC is very busy VFR flights that are just passing through and not landing within the class B area may be turned away. B generally covers an area up to 30 miles from the primary airport, though it has a complex shelf structure that steps up as you get further from the airport and allows other airspace below and above the shelves.
  • Classes C and D are also airport tower controlled but they are smaller than B. C is around secondary international and primary regional size airports, and D is for the least busy airports with a control tower.The main difference is that class C requires a radar transponder with altitude encoding and has a 10 mile radius with one shelf, D has a 4 to 6 mile radius no shelf and no transponder requirement. Both require two way radio acknowledgment from ATC but they do not require explicit permission to enter, planes with no radio can be accommodated if arrangement is made with ATC at least one hour prior.(this is to allow for antique aircraft or flights to repair stations) C, D, and E are controlled but not positive-control airspaces, as such IFR traffic is looked after and kept separated by ATC while VFR traffic just minds its own business for the most part, mainly contacting ATC during landing or for departure. Many D airports are so small they close the tower at night and revert to class E or G pilot-controlled airports.(The Boeing factory airports are all public class D) My local air-force and army-airfield bases are both class D and while I usually just cut through (near my preferred airport and I don't want to take the long way) they do allow some non-military landings with prior permission.
  • Class E is controlled enroute space, it is all the area between B, C, and D where ATC support is available. Low level Federal airways are all in class E, VOR "victor routes" are the most common type and usually are from 1200feet above ground to 18000 feet above sea level and 8 miles wide, though there are a few T routes [GPS or inertial navigation]. These routes are designed for IFR but they are not restricted, any VFR pilot can fly on them or in between them, though IFR will fly at 1000ft altitudes[eg 5000, 6000] and VFR will add 500ft[eg 5500, 6500]. E also covers air above FL650, though all airspace above FL450 is considered point to point and there are no designated routes. Most airspace above 1200ft is now E, some places E starts at 700ft or at the surface near some airports.
  • G is all the space between where ATC is not available, also known as uncontrolled airspace, mostly found from ground to 1200ft, where ATC does not have radar coverage G can go as high as 14000ft. G has no IFR because there is no ATC, and no designated airways because there is no IFR, the grey middle is a class G airport with an instrument approach, generally the instrument approach requires minimum cloud base/decision height above the G to E boundary. Flight in IMC is allowed in G without an active flight plan, at your own risk.
  • Special use airspaces are of several types and can be active only select hours (military training fighters or artillery range) or full time; and they can be only an alert to hazards like heavy student training or moderate military operations; "restricted" during certain hours for heavy military use (though you can still radio the controlling agency and ask them for permission to pass); or fully prohibited.(the only prohibited around here is a ballistic missile submarine base, and it only extends to 2500 feet above the surface)

We also have VFR flight plan filing in the USA, but this is voluntary and not permission to fly. A VFR flight plan is only a statement of intended route and estimated time so that a search can be made if you do not contact the service within 30 minutes of the stated arrival time. Flight plans can be changed in flight or canceled and closed by the pilot over the radio without actually completing the trip as filed. IFR flight plans can also be filed, opened, changed, canceled, and converted to VFR by the pilot while in the air.

  • $\begingroup$ Excuse the poor formatting and typographic errors, I was short on time. I'm still to busy to edit. $\endgroup$
    – Max Power
    Commented Apr 8, 2019 at 0:38
  • $\begingroup$ Generally an excellent answer but it's not correct to say that G has no IFR. You note correctly that flight in IMC in G is permitted, but it must be done in accordance with the instrument flight rules (e.g. Minimum IFR Altitude, alternate requirements etc) even though it does not require an ATC clearance. $\endgroup$ Commented Aug 13, 2019 at 5:49


In general, there are three main types of airports: public, private, and military. You can visit the same types of locations in your car, and they have somewhat similar restrictions.

Military and private airports will typically require prior permission to land there, and will want to know what business you have going there.

Public airports will depend on the size and usage. The largest airports will require coordination with ATC, and scheduled air carriers will get priority over a small general aviation aircraft or unscheduled arrivals (excepting emergencies). Even at less-busy airports, just as with visiting public areas in your car, there maybe additional restrictions such as times of operation, and you should do your research ahead of time to make sure you will be allowed access when you get there.


Route access will mostly be determined by the class of airspace they go through. Different types of airspace have different restrictions, and this ties in with the discussion on airports. The busiest airports in the US are surrounded by class B airspace, and ATC has to give you permission before you enter these areas. There are also areas with special restrictions, either for military use or safety/security reasons. The restrictions range from encouraging pilots to use extra caution, to encouraging them to avoid it, to prohibiting any aircraft that don't have permission to be there.

In the US, there are Victor airways, which are aimed towards use by smaller aircraft flying lower than airliners typically do, and designed to avoid restricted areas whenever possible. Most of the airspace in the US under 18,000 feet is class E, which means pilots under instrument flight rules, including airliners, will have to talk to ATC, but pilots under visual flight rules are mostly free to operate on their own.

There are also restrictions on equipment. Victor airways are designed so that pilots can navigate them with a VOR receiver, which most aircraft will have. There are other airways which require more accurate equipment like inertial navigation or GPS to follow. If a pilot flies such a route in airspace where they don't have to talk to ATC, it's up to the pilot to ensure they can safely follow their route.

When moving between countries, there may also be general restrictions about whether your license allows you to fly there all. This will depend on the specific countries involved. For example, see: I have a European EASA license - what do I need to do to be allowed to fly in the US?


Are there "generic" airports all pilots can land in?

In the US, there are some Large airports (8-10 or so), really busy, that require a landing reservation time slot. Most others, if you can land in the available runway length, you can fly there and land with no restrictions. I personally try and stay away from places with lots of jet traffic, they create all kinds of turbulence that can upset my little 4-seater. With 5000+ airports in the US, it's not hard to find someplace that is small airplane friendly.

  • $\begingroup$ Some of the most interesting YouTube videos I have ever watched are of people taking their 172 into fields like ORD or LAX. It's a lot of work, even at 1 am. $\endgroup$ Commented Mar 30, 2019 at 19:10
  • $\begingroup$ My chart supplement and far 93.123 only list LaGuardia, Newark, O'Hare, Reagan, and JFK as high density traffic airports requiring reservations. Reservations are not required between 2400 and 0600 local time. Non-scheduled and VFR operations are allowed if they request a reservation from ATC and ATC determines they will not pose undue delay to normally scheduled operations, these unscheduled operations are not counted toward the airport's operations per hour limit/quota. $\endgroup$
    – Max Power
    Commented Apr 8, 2019 at 1:02

You need to have up-to-date charts of the airfield you are trying to land at but other than that only the difficult airports require extra certification. Though many busy airports will charge a fee for the privilege of landing there.

Those charts will have all the information needed for a pilot to land at the airport. This includes nearby navigation markers, the approach path(s), decision height and missed approach procedure.

If you stay in VFR then you can use all VFR routes. However if you want to go along a IFR route you need to file a flight plan and have it approved. On departure you would "pick up the clearance" and then fly along the route talking to ATC along the way.

Flying IFR requires that you are certified to fly IFR.

  • $\begingroup$ One can't fly VFR, unfiled, along an IFR route while maintaining VFR altitudes (even and odd thousands)? I'm pretty sure you can. $\endgroup$
    – CrossRoads
    Commented Mar 28, 2019 at 14:39
  • $\begingroup$ @CrossRoads With route I include the required altitude ranges, so I would consider an IFR route followed in the VFR airspace below it a VFR route. $\endgroup$ Commented Mar 28, 2019 at 14:43
  • $\begingroup$ Fair enough. I see the airline-pilot tag, missed that earlier. Are the airlines all filing IFR? I know when I go cross country to new areas I file IFR, just to make sure ATC doesn't dump me when I get away from a large airport environment. $\endgroup$
    – CrossRoads
    Commented Mar 28, 2019 at 14:49
  • $\begingroup$ @CrossRoads Almost all airlines file IFR (save for some small puddle jumpers that don't get above a few thousand feet). IFR is required above 12,000 feet so that pretty much means everybody files IFR. $\endgroup$
    – Ron Beyer
    Commented Mar 28, 2019 at 15:10
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ @Ron Beyer: I think (in the US) it's "above 18,000 ft", unless somebody changed the rules without telling me. There's quite a bit of country around here where the 12,000 ft level is occupied by granite :-) $\endgroup$
    – jamesqf
    Commented Mar 28, 2019 at 17:41

I can also drive in the US. The differences are more pronounced but at least my European driving license allows me (in short) to drive there.

Your license allows you to drive in the US, but it does not grant you entry.

I wasn't certain if this was the intent of your question, but just because traffic control clears you on an international route doesn't automatically grant you entry into foreign airspace. It depends on the country. Some will allow any flight in to a designated entry facility. Others require valid permits prior to entry.


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