In a world that moves as fast as the internet, air freight shipping is the only way to go if you need something delivered as soon as humanly possible.
Air freight shipping is the quickest, most reliable way to move freight across the country or around the globe. It allows businesses to respond quickly to customer and market demands and is a critical resource for companies that deal in time- or temperature-sensitive goods.
Pharmaceutical companies, for example, use air freight shipping to transport temperature-sensitive immunizations to different parts of the world—an essential service in the time of COVID-19.
Retailers use freight shipping to move high-value, high-demand products like electronics and fashion accessories from manufacturers to their shelves with incredible speed.
In this article, we’ll explore the many facets of air freight shipping: how it works, the difference between domestic and international shipping, what happens at airports around the world to load and unload freight, the pros of using air freight for shipping goods, and more.
What is Air Freight Shipping?
Air freight shipping is a process by which cargo or goods are transported via an aircraft.
Unlike ground transportation, which relies on roads and railways, air freight uses airlines to transport cargo. This makes it the best option for express shipments, as it can get goods to their destination much faster than any other mode of transportation.
Air freight shipping companies have access to a vast network of airports around the globe.
This global reach gives them the ability to quickly move cargo from one location to another, no matter how far apart they are. There is also a wide variety of aircraft available—everything from small cargo planes to jumbo jets—that can accommodate any size shipment.
How Does Air Freight Shipping Work?
Air freight shipping is a complex process that involves several different players, each with its own role to play.
Let’s take a look at each step in the process, from pickup to delivery.
- Pickup and Loading- Your air freight logistics provider will coordinate with a local carrier to pick up your shipment on-site at your holding facility or warehouse. Once the freight is loaded onto the truck, it is ready for transport to the airport.
- Tender to the Airport- The trucking company will deliver the shipment to a designated spot at the airport, where it is then transferred onto a plane and secured for flight.
- Flight and Arrival- Depending on your destination location, air freight carriers can take many different routes. The plane may make a stop in another city or country before arriving at the final destination. Once the plane lands, the freight is unloaded and transferred to another truck for delivery to your business or residence.
- Delivery- The truck will deliver the cargo to your designated location, where it will be unloaded and readied for use.
Air freight shipping is possible via cargo aircraft, commercial aircraft, and air charter services:
Cargo aircraft are large planes designed specifically for transporting cargo across long distances.
They carry a wide variety of cargo from small pallets to massive machinery and have fewer restrictions than other types of air freight shipments because they don’t carry passengers, thus avoiding the bulk of Transportation Security Administration (TSA) regulations.
This makes them a good option for shipping hazardous materials (HAZMAT) and other tightly restricted goods.
This option works best for small and medium-sized shipments, as commercial aircraft are designed mainly to carry passengers.
They feature only a limited amount of space in the cargo hold, which is usually reserved for shipping luggage or goods purchased by passengers en route to their destination.
This limits the size of shipments that can be transported via this method, especially for international destinations.
Air Charter Services
This is the priciest option, but also the most adaptable. Air charter services allow businesses to hire a jet for shipping goods to and from any location in the world.
This gives companies total control over departure and arrival times, as well as the ability to choose their aircraft based on cargo size and budget.
As the only thing holding air charter services back is its high cost, this option is perfect for time-sensitive or emergency shipments.
Though both domestic and international air freight shipping work in a similar manner, there are some critical differences:
- Extra documentation- When shipping goods internationally, you will need to provide additional documentation to customs authorities, such as an invoice and a packing list. This is in addition to the standard commercial invoice that is required for all international shipments.
- Customs clearance- Customs officials must clear all international air freight cargo before it can be released to the receiving party. This process can take anywhere from a few minutes to several days, depending on the country of origin. Customs brokers can help you determine the best way to navigate these procedures and ensure that your shipment arrives on time.
- Cut-off times- Domestic and international air freight shipping often have different cut-off times for booking, documentation, and loading. For example, you may have a pickup time window of up to six hours for domestic shipments, but only two hours for international ones. This is why it’s important to work with an experienced freight forwarder who can help guide you through these processes, especially as a new company.
We know air freight shipping rates are generally higher than ground or sea shipping rates. But how much more expensive are they?
Air freight shipping rates are determined by the items you're sending, the carrier and airline you choose, and the chargeable weight of the shipment.
There are two ways of finding out your shipment's chargeable weight:
- Gross weight- This is the total weight of your shipment, including the freight, packaging, and pallet.
- Volumetric weight- This is the weight that air cargo carriers use to determine how much space a shipment takes up. Calculate your freight's volumetric weight using the formula (L x W x H) divided by a dimensional weight factor.
The chargeable weight is whichever of these two measurements is greater.
The reason is that bulkier items tend to weigh less than smaller, denser ones.
For example, a pallet of plastic water bottles may have a low gross weight, but the volumetric weight will likely be much higher due to their large size and high volume.
Some other factors that can influence air freight shipping rates include:
- Fuel surcharges- These are calculated based on the cost of jet fuel and can change frequently. Fuel costs have a big impact on air freight shipping rates and are not always included in your initial quote.
- Container freight station fees- If you ship your cargo via sea container and need to move it between your business and the freight station, you will be charged for this service.
- Airport security costs- All airports now require extensive security screenings for all passengers and cargo. These procedures come with a fee that is passed on to the shipper.
- Airline handling charges- Airlines often charge a fee for each piece of luggage that they check. For air freight, this will be calculated based on the number of items in your shipment.
- Customs clearance fees- These vary depending on country and destination. Asking a customs broker for a quote is the best way to get an accurate estimate.
Associated trucking costs- Once your cargo is delivered by the airline, it will need to be transferred to a truck and transported to your business or residence. The cost of this service is passed on to the shipper.
Advantages of Air Freight Shipping
Small- and medium-sized companies benefit the most from air freight shipping.
For these businesses, participating in global trade can be a daunting task due to the time and cost constraints of traditional transportation methods like ocean freight and land transport.
Air freight shipping allows them to overcome these barriers and compete in the global marketplace.
Let’s go over the benefits of air freight shipping:
Speed- This is the main advantage of shipping by air. Aircraft often fly directly between airports and can deliver freight within hours or days. It is possible to get your cargo across town or around the world in record time with no connecting stops—as long as you are willing to pay—something that won't be possible with other modes of transportation.
Availability- With air freight shipping, you have access to the entire world. There are no borders or boundaries that can get in the way of your shipment.
Reliability- Although flights can, of course, be delayed from time to time, it's relatively easy to find a flight that can accommodate your cargo and gets it where it needs to go on time should an unexpected delay occurs.
Safety- The presence of stringent security measures at airports also makes air freight a safe way to transport goods. The TSA closely monitors all passengers and cargo that goes through airports, so there is a much lower risk of theft or damage when shipping by air. Also, because most cargo travels on one plane from origin to destination, there is less chance of it being misplaced or damaged in transit.
Less Warehousing Costs- Because air freight shippers tend to keep smaller stocks and ship on tighter timelines, there is less need for warehousing space.
When deciding whether to ship by air, you must consider how fast your cargo needs to arrive at its destination.
Air freight is generally the most expensive shipping option and cannot always accommodate extremely heavy or large items; however, if speed and reliability are important factors for your business, it might be worth the extra cost.