Question Of The Week: What Nationality Is A Baby Born In Flight?

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“I read the news story this week about a baby born on a U.S. flight to Taiwan. When a baby is born in the air, what nationality does he adopt?”

As you’d expect, there’s no straight answer to this one. And, it happens a lot more than you might think. British Airways reports around one mid-air birth per year, even though its policy prevents a pregnant woman flying after the 36th week if pregnant with one baby (and after the 32nd week if pregnant with more than one).

In determining a “fly-by baby’s” citizenship, different factors can come into play, such as:

  • The laws of the country the baby was flying over at birth
  • The nationality of the baby’s parents
  • The national registry of the airline hosting the birth

As an example of the third case, if a French mother is flying on a Norwegian-registered plane and gives birth between Fiji and Tahiti, the newborn is considered still in Norway and must abide by Norwegian law.

The United States law is seemingly straightforward: If you’re born over the United States, even in a foreign plane to foreign parents, you can still claim U.S. citizenship.

This didn’t play out so simply earlier this month for a Chinese mother who went into labor on a China Airlines flight from Taipei to Los Angeles. Though clearly ready to give birth, she did her best to hold out, repeatedly asking “Are we in U.S. airspace yet?” The baby girl was born half an hour before the plane’s emergency landing at Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport.

While the baby is eligible for U.S. citizenship, she has been left in the care of a family friend while her mother has been deported back to China. This is clearly a worst-case scenario, not helped by the fact that the woman failed to declare to the airline that she was in her 36th week of pregnancy.

On a lighter note, some babies born on aircrafts have received special privileges. In November 2008, after a Swedish woman gave birth on a FinnAir flight from Bangkok to Helsinki (in Kazakhstani airspace for good measure), the family was awarded a set of round-trip tickets to Thailand. And back in 2006, a baby girl named Nancy received free flights until she turns 18 for being born during the descent of a Jazeera Airways flight from Kuwait City to Alexandria, Egypt.

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