Air freight costs and international and express air freight rates per kg
Global importers and exporters use air cargo when they need to move goods around the world quickly and reliably. While 90% of imports and exports are 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 air freight is typically handled by one company (such as DHL, UPS, or FedEx) that manages the entire shipment lifecycle and ships door-to-door in under five days. Express air freight shipments are usually smaller than air freight (less than one cubic meter and 200 kilograms).
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.
Pre-COVID-19, international air cargo rates typically ranged from approximately $2.50-$5.00 per kilogram, depending on the type of cargo and available space. Costs rose sharply in February 2020 when COVID-19 began a period of severe disruptions in ocean freight and consumer demand, with air cargo rates reaching a range of $4.00-$8.00 per kilogram. As of early 2023, rates have dropped to around $3.00-$7.00 per kilogram, which is still higher than pre-pandemic rates, likely due to increased fuel and labor costs.
How to calculate air freight cost
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Air freight shipping prices and costs
When it comes to air freight shipping, 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.
To calculate volumetric weight for air shipping, multiply the item’s volume in cubic meters by 167. So, let’s say you have a package with the following measurements: W: 40cm, H: 40cm L:40. This means that the volume is .064 (the product of all sides divided by one million). Multiply this 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 air shipments, you can use this chargeable weight calculator to work out whether your shipment will be charged by actual weight or dimensional weight.
If you book freight on freightos.com, no need to calculate your chargeable weight – our platform calculates it automatically.
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The benefits of air freight
There are three main benefits to shipping by air:
- Speed – 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. That means an air freight shipment can take merely five days from a factory in China to a warehouse in the United States. Use this transit time calculator, based on data from real recent shipments to get estimates of transit times for air shipping.
- Reliability – Shipping by air provides better tracking and greater certainty that your goods will get to the right place at the right time.
- Protection – Goods are more likely to be damaged when traveling by ocean freight shipping than by air shipping. This makes air freight a good option for fragile items.
When shouldn’t I ship by air?
Here are some of the drawbacks to shipping by air:
- Cost – Air freight comes with a hefty price tag compared to ocean freight. Comparing air and ocean freight, a medium size 2000 lbs box from Shenzhen, China to Los Angeles, USA, can cost $1,500 by ocean but a whopping $8,000 or more by air. However, with price changes due to supply chain disruptions, this difference may be lower.
- CO2 emissions – Air freight leads to far more emissions. For example, according to UK government research, 2 tons 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 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 move clothing from factories to stores as quickly as possible. Clothing’s small size and high value additionally make air freight a worthwhile expense.
- Pharmaceuticals. Given their small size and value, medical goods are frequently shipped by air.
- Documents and samples. DHL Global Forwarding actually got started by shipping 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.
Air freight shipping rates & charges
Beyond the expense of air freight, which is calculated based on the cost above, the total cost to ship by air 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 air cargo services, including:
- Customs brokerage
- Pickup and delivery
- Cargo insurance
- Accessorial charges
Are international air freight quotes and air freight prices changing?
International air freight usage was 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 1.6% in 2019, down from 5% in 2014.
One reason for this was increased reliance on ocean freight. However, with long delays and volatile transit times plaguing ocean freight, more importers and exporters moved to air cargo.
Since March 2020, air cargo rates have doubled, driven by constrained capacity, limited passenger travel due to restrictions, increased consumer demand, and other factors resulting from the pandemic. On the other hand, air passenger travel is stabilized, freeing up more belly cargo space. However, prices are still high, with importers and exporters often sticking with ocean freight if they can afford the time.
Most companies that import or export goods internationally still do everything in their power to take advantage of cheaper 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.