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When searching on Orbitz for round-trip flights, I see a number of results with this note highlighted in yellow when expanding Flight Details:

"This flight is pending government approval."

What does that mean? How does the likelihood that such flight will occur compared to other flights along the same route? What should I expect if it does not occur, compared to the cancellation of a flight without that note?

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It's a good question except for the subjective/speculative "Is it safe...?" part.... – Flimzy Jul 11 '14 at 17:38
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A good example of this was the row between UAE and Canada over landing slots for Emirates. In the bureaucratic pillow fight that resulted, for a while Canadians couldn't get their free visa on arrival as a reciprocal measure from UAE. Eventually it all got sorted out. – Burhan Khalid Dec 2 '15 at 4:58
up vote 6 down vote accepted

If an airline is planning to open a new route, especially international routes, they will need a long list of approvals before they can operate that route. Usually this process is a bureaucratic process since it involves many organizations (civil aviation authorities, airport authorities, etc.).

Anyway, airlines usually have a green light to open the route before the paper work is done, hence they start advertising that route before they get the final approvals on paper. So generally speaking it is safe to book these flights, but just in case something goes wrong, the airline is notifying you in advance about that. Also, you will get a full refund in case things go wrong.

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The airlines say "pending government approval" before they have a "green light" to operate a route. So it's more than just waiting for paperwork to be complete. – jetset Dec 2 '15 at 2:47
    
@jetset, I think the answer is saying "green light" to mean that the airlines normally have an informal agreement that approval will be granted. Rather than any sort of formal OK. – SpaceDog Dec 2 '15 at 7:55
    
@SpaceDog, point taken (I'd interpreted "green light" as being more final, but I think your view makes more sense). – jetset Dec 3 '15 at 2:32

It quite literally means that the airline is planning on launching an international route, but can't legally operate the flight until various government approvals are received. In international flights, the originating and destination countries must agree to grant an airline the right to operate a route (often including the departure and arrival time slots as well).

You also ask:

How does the likelihood that such flight will occur compared to other flights along the same route?

That's for you to decide; for me, if the airline is a major one (e.g., BA, AA, CX, JL), I'd figure the likelihood is quite high and would and have booked tickets before final approval.

What should I expect if it does not occur, compared to the cancellation of a flight without that note?

You should be treated the same, meaning that if you have a paid ticket, the airline will offer you a full refund or reaccommodation on another flight.

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Airlines generally DO sell seats on these flights before they get final approval. This answer is wrong. – Doc Dec 2 '15 at 2:51
    
Yes, you're correct. I wrote the wrong thing and have now fixed it. Thanks for catching it. – jetset Dec 2 '15 at 4:54

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