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If You're Born In The Sky, What's Your Nationality? An Airplane Puzzler

Wednesday, August 20, 2014 - 01:40 PM

Here's a puzzle I bet you've never pondered.

Imagine you are very, very pregnant. For the purposes of this mind game, you are a married American woman (with an American spouse) and you are about to board a plane and, pregnant as you are, they let you on.

A pregnant woman boards a plane.
Robert Krulwich/NPR 

Your flight, on Lufthansa Airlines, will leave Frankfurt, Germany, and travel nonstop to the Maldive Islands in the Indian Ocean. Germany is cold, wet and unhappy-making, and you crave the aquamarine waters, the balmy skies of the Maldives.

Robert Krulwich/NPR 

You take off. Then, hours later, just as your plane passes 37,000 feet above Karachi, Pakistan, heading south, your baby, in an inconvenient act of impetuosity, decides she wants to be born right then, right there — and so in row 13, business class seat 13B, you give birth to a healthy, somewhat surprised baby girl. The moment of birth happens as you are directly above Pakistani territory. Karachi is passing below as she emits her first cry. Everybody's fine — you, the baby, the crew.

37,000 feet above Karachi, Pakistan, a baby girl is born at seat 13B.
Robert Krulwich/NPR

Now comes my question. We've got an American mom on a German airplane in Pakistani airspace. What nationality is the baby?

Is she American? German? Pakistani? Maldivian? Or some combination of those? Baby's choice? Mom's? Pakistan's?

Robert Krulwich/NPR 

I ask because the question comes up in a book I'm reading, Unruly Spaces byAlastair Bonnett. It's a book that thinks a lot about place. In this case one of the pertinent questions is, "Who governs the air?"

Theirs All The Way Up To Heaven

There is an ancient doctrine, enshrined in English common law, that saysCuius est solum, eius est usque ad coelum et ad inferos, which means, "Whoever owns the soil, it is theirs all the way up to heaven and down to hell."

That was the old rule, before the advent of air balloons, then airplanes, then V2 rockets, then spy satellites. It's been seriously amended (at least in Britain) to a much more modest: You own the airspace necessary for "the use and enjoyment" of your plot of land. So how high up is that?

Apparently, not that high. Clouds, for example, don't belong to you.

Is the baby American, German, Pakistani, or Madivian?
Robert Krulwich/NPR

Nations have made bolder claims to owning the sky. Some countries say their territory extends 43 miles up, some say 99. Everyone agrees there's an upper limit, but legal theories differ. One notion says when there's no longer enough air in the atmosphere to lift a plane, that's where outer (and shared) space begins. Others say the private zone must include the path of an orbiting satellite. Eight equatorial nations, in the Bogota Declaration of 1976, bumped their claims to 22,300 miles above earth — where geostationary spy satellites can park and look down. 


The Airborne Baby Question

Whatever the reach of nations, most of the Earth is covered by ocean, and nobody owns the seas; so when traveling above the oceans, you are geopolitically nowhere or everywhere. There is, of course, a notion from admiralty law that says if your ship is French, then while onboard, you are legally in France.

Which means, writes Alastair Bonnett, "that if your plane is registered in Norway, even when you are in mid-Pacific, flying between Fiji and Tahiti, you are still in Norway and have to abide by Norwegian law." And that gets him to the Airborne Baby question:

This precept also suggests that babies born on planes will sometimes be citizens of the country where the plane is registered and sometimes take their parents' citizenship.

Apparently it depends. The national registry of the airline matters. The nation you are born over matters too. Some nations grant citizenship to fly-by babies. Some don't.

Some nations grant citizenship to fly-by babies.
Robert Krulwich/NPR

According to Alastair, "If you are born over the United States, in a foreign plane with foreign parents, you can still claim U.S. citizenship." Really? That's so generous! (Do Brazil, Russia, Egypt grant a flyover baby the same option?)

I may be the only person on Earth fascinated by this legal puzzle, but I bet there are some of you out there — lawyers, airline attendants, maybe even a real life "flyover baby" — who know if there's a general rule governing sky births. Is there a practice followed by most nations, or does every case turn on its details, on its particular who, when and where?

A view of Earth from space.
Robert Krulwich/NPR

Whatever the current practice, I have a suggestion. If you step back from our planet, and see that thin wisp of atmosphere girdling our big blue orb, it seems that air should have a special legal designation, with extra privileges for anybody lucky enough to be born in the sky. If I were king of the world, babies born in airplanes, balloons and blimps would, instead of choosing to be German, Maldivian or American, all get special heavenly blue passports with a stork on the cover labeled "Sky Baby" — and they'd be allowed to come and go anywhere they please. But that's just me talking.

A Sky Baby passport.
Robert Krulwich/NPR



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Comments [22]

Excellent article! Check out my articles on:

Sep. 25 2015 08:01 AM

For pointers to additional info

Nov. 26 2014 07:15 AM
David W. from New Jersey

We had an interesting citizenship issue happen to my son. He was visiting in Israel for a year, and because his mother (my wife) was an Israeli citizen, he could also be an Israeli citizen, and has all the privileges of Israeli citizenship, mainly serving in the army.

My son had never been in Israel before, and was born in the U.S., but Israeli citizenship law is rather viral in this respect. Children of citizens are automatically considered citizens too. My wife too was not born in Israel, but since her father is an Israeli citizen, she is an Israeli citizen. And, so are her children.

With some legal help, it was determined that my son wasn't really an Israeli citizen after all because my wife 1). didn't request citizenship for herself (it was thrusted upon her), and 2). because my wife never traveled on an Israeli passport. My son didn't have to serve in the military after all. Good for him, and probably the Israeli military. He's not one you like to see handling sharp objects or things that can go boom.

However, least my son now think he's in the clear, my wife has been informed that the next time she visits Israel, she must do so on an Israeli passport. I hope my son likes khaki.

Sep. 09 2014 05:05 PM
David W. from New Jersey

Not all countries have rules that allow citizenship by virtue of birth on their soil. The U.S. is fairly unique in this respect. In most countries, you have to show some sort of cultural heritage before you can claim citizenship. Taking a look at the various countries in Europe Union, only Latvia allows children born in Latvia to automatically become citizens. Most other EU countries require either one parent to be a citizen, you to be stateless, or a foundling. France allows people born on French soil to become a citizen, but only at the age of 13 at their parents' request or at 16 on their own request.

Universally, you can always claim the citizenship of your parents no matter where you are born. I believe even Malta now allows children of female citizens to claim Maltese citizenship - even if they aren't born in Malta.

The U.S. is very different thanks to the 14th Amendment which requires it to give someone citizenship just because they were born on U.S. soil. If our flyer wasn't an American citizen, and was flying in U.S. airspace when the child was born, the child could become a U.S. citizen.

However, that child don't necessarily have U.S. citizenship thrust upon them. the child or their parents must request it. Otherwise, you could be forced to register for the draft when you turn 18 even if you never returned to the U.S. after your birth. Although that child is not automatically a U.S. citizen, that child (or that child's parents on the child's behalf) can claim U.S. citizenship at any time.

Sep. 09 2014 04:45 PM
Dan Porter from AC, NJ and Montreal,QC

If you are born on the moon, does it matter which side of the planet its on at the time?

International treaties make the moon neutral ground, if I'm not mistaken.

Sep. 09 2014 03:48 PM
Scott McGregor from Campbell, CA

By the way, should one of the child's grand parents be an Irish citizen, chances are the child can also claim Irish citizenship as well. Depending on nationality and "bloodline" citizenship rules of the countries of the grandparents and countries where parent have lived previously, the child may be entitled to even more citizenship options.

Sep. 08 2014 02:03 AM
Mark from Austin

The more important question is obviously "Will the baby get full or pro-rated frequent flier miles?"

Sep. 07 2014 08:27 PM
Andy Kristian Agaba from Pennsylvania

Hi Robert, this reminded me of a Ugandan woman who gave birth in Canadian airspace and on landing in Boston, the baby was declared Canadian for immigration purposes. I don't know how it ended up. This was in 2009 and the BBC article is here
I believe every country would have different laws on whether flight babies in their airspace get their citizenship.

Sep. 06 2014 09:23 PM
Kenover from San Francisco

I believe Germany uses "blood" rather than geography to establish nationality, so in this case the child would almost certainly be American by birth.

Sep. 06 2014 08:21 PM
Binny from The Earth

Thanks RK for breaking my illusion and ignorance :( I always thought sky babies were citizen of the Earth, i.e. free of nationality more along the lines of John Lenon's "Imagine". What a bummer, everything's is complicated.

Sep. 06 2014 10:45 AM
Doug W from New Delhi, India

And to the issue of whether being born on US makes you a US citizen, it does in almost all cases. The one case in which it does not is if you are the children of people in the US on diplomatic Visas (i.e. embassy or consulate employees). The phrase in the law is "All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens ...". The "subject to the jurisdiction thereof" is the phrase that exempts people here on diplomatic visas, as they are not.

Sep. 06 2014 01:45 AM
Doug W from New Delhi, India

Actually, American citizenship for foreign born children is more complicated than most people realize. If your mother is American, your father is not, and your parents are not married, you get it if your mother lived in the US for 1 year prior to the birth. If your parents are married, you get it if your mother spent 5 years in the US (2 of which must have occurred after she turned 14). If they are both American, you get it provided one of them spent some (unspecified) amount of time in the US (according to one US embassy official I spoke to, 1 day is enough). This later requirement would obviously be fulfilled by most American parents of foreign born children, though there have been cases of dual-citizen US/Israeli couples who were both born in Israel and who never returned to the US, and whose children were subsequently denied US citizenship. The thinking, I suppose, is that even if you're a US citizen, if you've never set foot in the US, your connection to the country is tenuous enough that you can't pass citizenship on to your kids.

Sep. 06 2014 01:41 AM
Jody H from KS

@Jon S
There are loopholes for everything. For example, a child born of parents of a country that does not allow dual citizenship would have to reject US citizenship. But point taken...born here means you qualify for citizenship.

Sep. 05 2014 10:24 PM
Jim Nelson from South Sioux City, Nebraska, Sun

When I was born my mother was whizzing around the sun at a bajillion miles per hour. I'm pretty sure that makes me a citizen of the sun ... wow!! Thanks Robert.

Sep. 05 2014 09:25 PM

A child born on foreign soil to US citizens who are minors is not considered a US citizen. This may complicate things.

Sep. 05 2014 08:04 PM
Jon S from PA

@Jody H: Actually, being born in the US /does/ make you a US citizen.

Being born to two American citizens would definitely make Sky Baby an American, regardless of where she was born.

After some quick googling:

Germany doesn't automatically grant citizenship to people temporarily in Germany, and neither do the Maldives. Fun fact: only Muslims may become Maldivian citizens.

Pakistan, though, does grant citizenship to all babies born in its territory, providing that the /father/ is not an enemy of the state or have immunity from the legal process (ie is a diplomat). This is assuming that Pakistan claims ownership of its airspace up to where that plane was flying. Given its history with India, I'm willing to assume that.

So, looks like little Sky Baby here is American-Pakistani. Which, honestly, is gonna cause her some issues with the TSA when she tries to enter the US.

Sep. 05 2014 07:14 PM

Aren't you not supposed to fly during your last trimester? Lol.

Sep. 05 2014 06:55 PM
Jody H from KS

You do not have to be born on American soil to be born an American citizen. And being born on American soil doesn't mean you are an American citizen. A fundamental lack of knowledge about our own country is what causes a lot of ignorant bigotry in this country....
Let's work on cleaning that up...

Sep. 05 2014 03:59 PM
Jan from UK

What about the international space station travelling at much higher speeds, what defines the moment of birth? Presumably when the baby comes free, or when the umbilical is severed? BTW there are plenty of stateless people, I knew one.

Sep. 05 2014 03:04 AM
Frank Bath from London UK

If the parents are American the baby is American. If the parents are dual nationality the baby is dual nationality. If that isn't the case it should be. Otherwise the UN or some other body will have to sort it out. No need for a headache.

Sep. 04 2014 07:41 PM
Andrea from Vancouver, BC

This happened in 2007 when a Jamaican woman living in the Cayman Islands gave birth on a Cayman Airways flight back home. The Cayman Islands do not automatically grant citizenship to babies born there (at least one parent must be a citizen), so that was out of the question. The baby was ultimately granted Jamaican citizenship, but if that hadn't gone through she would have been issued a UN passport - the same sort given to refugees and those whose countries have disappeared, which is probably as close as you'll get to an actual Sky Baby passport.

Sep. 04 2014 05:20 PM
Wright from Washington, DC

Fun post! However, from a policy perspective, I'd be careful about granting too many privileges to Sky Babies--we don't want to incentivize dangerous behavior like sneaking onto planes while extremely pregnant.

Sep. 04 2014 03:57 PM

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