How Air Freight Works

When speed is your priority, air shipping is the solution

In this “need it yesterday” world, air shipping is the ideal solution to move freight across the country — or the globe — quickly and safely. It allows shippers to respond to customers and market demands fast and easy. It’s the service manufacturers turn to when an assembly line breaks down, and they need an immediate replacement part. It’s what pharmaceutical companies use to ship temperature-sensitive immunizations worldwide. And it’s what retailers use to get high-value and high-demand electronics on their shelves with speed.    

Air transportation is a critical part of operating an efficient supply chain. Keep reading to learn how air freight works, the difference between shipping domestically and internationally, the types of planes used to carry the cargo, and more.

How does air shipping work?

From pickup to delivery, the process is straightforward. Your logistics provider will coordinate with a local carrier to pick up at your storehouse or holding facility. Once the freight is loaded, the carrier will tender the shipment to the airport, where it will be put onto a plane. When the shipment arrives at the destination airport, your carrier will arrange for pickup and delivery.

Domestic vs. international

The travel process for domestic air and international air shipments is the same, but there are critical differences to note. If you’re importing or exporting air cargo, you’ll experience more involved documentation and will have to clear your items with Customs. Other differences include the cut-off times for tendering a shipment and the delivery options.

How are air freight rates calculated?

What you’re shipping, the carrier and airline you use, and the shipment’s chargeable weight affect the rate. The chargeable weight is the gross weight (including the freight, packaging and pallet) or the volumetric weight — whichever is greater. Volumetric weight is calculated using a formula that divides the cargo’s measurements (LxWxH) by a dimensional weight factor. Typically, larger items that weigh less take up more space than small, heavy items, which is why air cargo carriers use the chargeable weight formula.

Other factors that can impact the cost?

  • Fuel surcharges
  • Container freight station fees
  • Airport security costs
  • Airline handling charges
  • Customs clearance fees
  • Associated trucking costs

The easiest way to determine air shipping rates is to contact your carrier for a quote.

Equipment options

While cargo planes are the most common aircraft transporting freight, commercial jets and air charter services are also options. Check out the descriptions below to learn more about each:

Cargo aircraft

Cargo planes are specifically designed to move freight. They come in a variety of sizes, and the inside space is maximized to accommodate all kinds of cargo — from small pallets of goods to massive machinery. One of the largest planes, the Boeing 747-400, can hold about 26,000 cubic feet of cargo. Because these planes don’t carry people, they have fewer Transportation Security Administration (TSA) restrictions, meaning they can also move hazardous materials (HAZMAT).  

Commercial planes 

If you’re moving small shipments, it can be more economical to place the freight in the cargo area of a passenger plane. Two types of aircraft are available — narrow-bodied and wide-bodied — and both are designed to carry freight on pallets or in containers. Because freight is traveling with passengers, additional restrictions will apply. There are also size and weight limits based on the type of plane, the airline, and whether the goods are shipping locally or internationally.  

Air charter services

For critical freight that needs to meet tight delivery windows, charter services may be the best option. You get exclusive use of a plane with direct service to the destination. In most cases, this is the quickest way to ship to anywhere, including remote locations. Charter services are often used for urgent shipping needs in the energy, mining and automotive industries, and for sporting events, motion picture shoots and product launches.

Advantages of shipping by air

Speed isn’t the only advantage. You also get:

Access to anywhere in the world,

Most air freight forwarders have an extensive network of airlines that serve domestic and international locations. So no matter where your customers are, you can get freight to them easily.

Capacity at your fingertips,

Because of the frequency of commercial flights, capacity isn’t an issue. Even if a flight is missed, freight can usually get on a later flight that day and still arrive on time. You and your customers can rely on quick, dependable service even with minor delays.

Multiple delivery options,

Air shipping offers several delivery options, so you can choose how quickly your cargo arrives:

International delivery options

  • Deferred service: This is the standard option for international flights. Freight usually arrives at the destination within 5-7 days.
  • Express service: This is the fastest option for shipping goods globally. While it is more costly, your goods will arrive at the destination airport within 3-5 days.

Added safety

Because the TSA closely monitors airports, air shipping can reduce the risk of theft. And because cargo often travels on one plane from origin to destination, there’s less risk of damage as well. Reliable security, combined with one of transportation’s safest modes, means confident deliveries to every customer.

Minimal warehousing requirements

Air shippers tend to maintain smaller inventories and ship on tighter schedules, so there’s less need to pay for warehousing space.

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