Air transport usually gets your freight from point A to point B faster than any ocean or land transportation, but faster doesn’t necessarily mean better.
Although fast and often convenient, it isn’t optimal for every shipping scenario. Making the right decision on transportation mode involves evaluating the type of cargo you’re shipping, your budget, how quickly it needs to get to its destination, and how weight will factor into your cost.
Just like with other shipping methods, there are benefits and disadvantages to air freight. We’ll start with the good news.
Air Freight Speed
Air freight typically moves quickly and on a precise schedule. Perishables that have a shelf life, like fruit or seafood, would ideally be shipped by air because it’s usually faster, giving you an increased likelihood that your goods will reach retail shelves in plenty of time. Ocean freight can sometimes accommodate perishable goods or pharmaceuticals with refrigerated containers, but you’ll be charged extra, it requires additional protocol, and the shipment won’t move any faster. You’ll still be moving it at ocean freight speed, with all the potential for fees and delays associated with shipping by sea.
Fewer Unpredictable Delays
Air freight encounters fewer unpredictable delays than either land or ocean freight. For example, the airline industry as a whole has fewer labor strikes than other industries. Delays with air freight are usually limited to weather conditions, and while weather can delay ocean and land shipments, there are more strikes involving longshoremen and trucking unions as well as other work slowdowns impacting those shipping modes.
Advanced Tracing and Tracking
Air shipments are easy to trace and track because you’re usually able to track every leg of your cargo’s journey. With the right technology in place, your forwarder or broker will typically be able to grant you access to a tool that tells you who picked up your shipment, when it was tendered to the airline, exactly where it is en route, when it’s making a connection, and when it arrives at its destination.
With ocean freight, you’ll typically only know that your cargo is somewhere at sea, as it’s less traceable than air freight.
Increased Regulations for Air Transportation
Cargo that travels by air into a US city will be subject to greater restrictions than cargo that moves by land or sea. Many people don’t realize that cargo often moves in passenger aircrafts, especially larger ones. For this reason, air transit expressly prohibits certain hazardous materials, various types of ammunition, and some radioactive materials. However, most chemicals can move by land or sea.
Pilots Approve Cargo
In addition to federal regulations for air shipments, there’s always the chance that a pilot can deny cargo. When a commercial pilot looks over the flight’s manifest, he or she can decide not to make the flight with certain dangerous goods on board. Even cargo like laptops with lithium batteries requires dangerous goods documentation. This will be noted on the flight manifest, and the pilot will ultimately be the one to make the final call.
Shipment Delays Without Proper Preparation
If you haven’t worked with your Customs broker to thoroughly prepare your shipment, your air freight could end up arriving later than it would by ocean transport. This means making sure all your paperwork is together, ensuring you have everything in place that you’ll need for Customs, including any documentation for special cargo and anything that’s specially regulated by a federal agency, such as the FDA and other government agencies.
Air Freight has Premium Prices and Dimensional Weight
The swiftness you get with shipping by air comes at a premium. With ocean and land shipments, there are more accessorial charges. Sending freight by sea can impact cost when you have a less than container load (LCL).
With airlines, you need to keep in mind that you’re charged based on how much space your cargo takes up on the plane. When you schedule shipments via air, check your dimensional weight versus your actual weight. Air shipment quotes are given based on the greater of the two – actual weight versus dimensional weight. Sometimes the dim weight is greater and may come as a surprise to an unseasoned customer, who may not realize how airlines charge for cargo shipping. Unlike air freight shipments, LCL ocean shipments are quoted in cubic meters. If shipped in the same size box, an air shipment of feathers may cost as much as a shipment of bricks if the dim weight exceeded the actual weight. If you’re uncertain on the best mode of transportation for your shipment, it’s best to consult with your logistics provider before making a decision.
The Benefits of LCL vs. Air Cargo
When shipping by air, you have a few charges per shipment. The same goes for full container ocean shipments, a few standard charges, and then the more substantial freight bill. But with LCL, there is a laundry list of charges. It also depends on the type of product being shipped, so this is something you should discuss with your freight forwarder. For example, would it be easier to move a full container, move LCL twice per month, or send intermittently by air?
Furthermore, when comparing quotes of any shipment mode, if there is a substantial difference, there is a good chance the Incoterms quoted are not the same. One quote might be quoting port to port —it might not include pickup or drop off, storage of any kind, or Customs fees— while the other is door to door. If your quote seems too good to be true, make sure to scrutinize the services that it entails. Otherwise, you might end up in a position where you are scrambling to try to get your goods out of the port of destination.
Air freight is hands down the faster option for moving cargo in most cases. However, not all cargo ships best by air. Take into consideration the type of cargo you’re moving, how quickly you need it delivered, and what potential premiums you will be charged for that faster delivery. Your freight forwarder can help you determine the best shipping line for your cargo.