Ocean freight accounts for 90% of all shipments.
It’s relatively inexpensive and reliable.
But when you need your goods yesterday, air freight is probably your best bet.
In this article, you will learn about how air freight works, when you should use it, and how to find the best price.
What is international air freight shipping?
Air cargo is used by global importers and exporters when they need to get goods somewhere rapidly and reliably. While 90% of everything is shipped by ocean freight, air freight connects the world faster, cutting China-US freight shipping time from 20-30 days by ocean to only three days by air cargo.
International air freight and express freight shipments are not the same things.
Express freight is typically handled by one company (like DHL, UPS or FedEx) that handles the entire shipment lifecycle, with shipping from door to door in under five days. These shipments are usually smaller (less than one cubic meter and 200 kilograms) than air freight.
International air freight shipments can be significantly larger and may move across multiple carriers during shipment. As a matter of fact, the largest cargo airplane, the Anatov 225 – can hold an entire train.
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What are the costs for shipping by air?
When it comes to air freight, weight and volume are key factors. Air carriers will charge by either volumetric weight (also known as dimensional weight) or actual weight, depending on which is more expensive.
The global rule of thumb is to calculate the volumetric weight is to multiply the item’s volume in cubic meters by 167. The volume is for a package that is W: 40cm, H: 40cm L:40 would have a .064 (the product of all sides divided by one million). Multiple by 167, and you get a volumetric weight of 10.67 kg.
If the volumetric weight exceeds the actual weight of the product, the volumetric weight becomes the chargeable weight. For light shipments, use this chargeable weight calculator to work out whether your shipment will be charged by actual weight or dimensional weight.
Use this free calculator to get instant air cargo estimates.
When should I ship by air?
There are three considerations you should have in mind to determine when you should ship by air:
- Speed – Think five days from a factory in China to a warehouse in the United States. Airplanes are about 30 times faster than ocean liners. Passenger jets cruise at 575 mph, while slow-steaming ocean liners move at 16-18 mph. Use this transit time calculator, based on data from real recent shipments, to get estimates of transit times. In general numbers, air freight is usually 5X the price of trucking and 16X the price of ocean freight, according to the World Bank.
- Reliability – People are pickier than packages, which has encouraged the freight market to develop more dependable freight services, and combined with better air freight data movement, shipping by air provides better air freight tracking and the knowledge that your goods will get to the right place at the right time.
- Protection – While ocean piracy is on the decline, goods are more likely to be damaged in ocean freight shipping than air shipping.
When shouldn’t I ship by air?
There are three considerations you should have in mind to determine when you might not want to ship by air:
- Cost – Simply put, air freight comes with a hefty price tag. Comparing air and ocean freight, a medium size 2000 lbs box from Shenzhen, China to New York, USA, can cost $1,200 by ocean but a whopping $4,000 by air.
- CO2 emissions – Of course, air freight also leads to far more emissions. For example, according to UK government research, 2 tonnes shipped for 5,000 kilometers by ocean will lead to 150 kg of CO2 emissions, compared to 6,605 kg of CO2 emissions by air. Definitely not the greenest way to ship.
- Heavy shipments – Ever since the 1960s, freight shipping has revolved around shipping containers, which are great for shipping large, heavy items. Air freight is priced based on both size and weight, which can scale price very quickly.
What goods are generally shipped via air freight?
Since air cargo is prohibitively expensive, it’s usually limited to smaller, high-value goods or time-sensitive items, such as:
- Electronics. Steve Jobs famously purchased the entire available air freight capacity along key Asia-US routes to ship the first iMac prior to the holiday season.
- Apparel. Seasonal trends in clothing can shift fast. As a result, companies generally need to get clothing from factories to stores as quickly as possible. Again, clothing’s small size and high value make it a great tradeoff.
- Pharmaceuticals. Given their small size and value, medical goods are frequently shipped by air.
- Documents and Samples. DHL Global Forwarding actually got started by taking ocean freight documents by air to expedite release along a new West Coast-Hawaii ocean line. Air remains the most cost-effective method of shipping documents.
- Seasonal shipments. Whatever the product is, if there’s high international demand for a product that requires bolstering down a supply chain, it will generally be shipped by air.
Beyond the air freight, which is calculated based on the cost above, the air freight price will also likely include:
- Fuel surcharges
- Security surcharges
- Container freight station/terminal handling charges
- Airport transfers
In addition, for door-to-door costs, the price will also include
- Customs brokerage
- Pickup and delivery
- Cargo insurance
- Accessorial charges
Are international air freight quotes and air prices changing?
Air freight usage is growing slowly, with less than 1% growth in 2015 among the world’s top freight forwarders, according to Transport Intelligence. The International Air Transport Association (IATA) said that air freight growth only hit 2.2% in 2015, down from 5% in 2014. One reason for this is increased reliance on ocean freight, which is growing more and more reliable.
Ocean freight has been getting cheaper, driven by massive ocean freight overcapacity, with up to 75% declines on key routes. On the other hand, air passenger travel has grown strongly, pushing carriers to create more and more planes. As a result, there’s more belly cargo space – space under the place to store air freight. However, this means that less than half of air freight capacity is being used.
The result for air cargo shipments is that most companies that need to import do everything in their power to take advantage of cheap ocean freight quotes, leaving only the most urgent shipments for air.
Do you need to know the airport code for, say, Shanghai-Pudong International Airport? Check out this handy Airport Code Finder. It’s PVG, by the way.