What is the Nationality of a Baby Born on an Airplane?

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It is a question that confounds the most geographically and legally astute: what is the nationality of a baby born on an airplane? Assuming that the pregnant mother is even allowed on the plane in the first place, this question is quite the puzzler.

There have been many attempts over the years to settle the issue of what nationality a baby born on an airplane is, but the problem still remains.

The Factors that Influence the Nationality of a Baby Born on an Airplane

Out of all the efforts to determine the answers, it seems to boil down to the following options:

  • The baby gets the citizenship of the parents and the point of departure
  • The baby gets the citizenship of the parents and the point of arrival
  • The baby gets the citizenship of the parents only
  • The baby gets the citizenship of the parents and of the airline being traveled

Think about it this way. Hypothetically speaking, an American mother boards an Air France plane in Paris bound for Cairo, Egypt. While over Italian airspace, the baby decides to be born. Is the baby declared American, French, Egyptian, Italian, or some combination?

Who Owns the Airspace Over a Country?

Before the advent of airplanes, air balloons, spy satellites, and rockets, the old rule was Cuius est solum, eius est usque ad coelum et ad inferos. Enshrined in English common law, this phrase means, “Whoever owns the soil, it is theirs all the way up to heaven and down to hell.”

Thankfully, this has been modified over the years to mean that each country owns the airspace necessary for the “use and enjoyment” of their plot of land.

A picture of an airplane overlaid on to a map of the world.
Base map: Equal Earth Physical Map, public domain

The problem, however, is determining how high that airspace is because each country has their own definition. Some say 43 miles up, some say 99.

In the Bogota Declaration of 1976, eight equatorial nations claimed their airspace to 22,000 miles above the Earth, where spy satellites plant themselves and look down upon the planet.

What About the Nationality of a Baby Born While Traveling Over the Oceans?

This same question of nationality could also apply to babies born on ships traveling in international waters. Technically, no one owns the seas. When traveling on the ocean or above the Earth, a person is geographically nowhere and everywhere at the same time.

There is a notion from admiralty law that says that a person traveling on a French ship is legally in France while onboard. The same principle could be applied for those on planes, and the 1944 Convention on International Civil Aviation states that all aircraft have the nationality of the nation in which they are registered but leaves out any declarations on births aboard those aircrafts. It is for each country to decide who its citizens are.

The 1961 Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness, though, proclaims that a birth taking place on an aircraft or ship in international waters or airspace will be treated like a birth in the country of the craft’s registration. But very few countries hold to this rule. Plus, the rule only applies if the child would otherwise be stateless.

The whole debate brings up the principles of Jus sanguinis and Jus soli. Jus sanguinis is the principle of nationality where a person is declared a citizen not by place of birth but by having one or both parents who are citizens of that nation.

Jus soli, on the other hand, is where a person is declared a citizen by their place of birth, and this principle dominates in the Americans but is rare elsewhere.