Understanding Air Cargo Shipments: A Freight Shipper’s Guide

An aircraft as viewed from the cargo loading station

Shipping freight by air for the first time — or even the 101st time! —  can feel overwhelming, especially for shippers unfamiliar with the many unique terms and processes involved.

Whether you're shipping domestically or internationally, understanding the essentials of air freight logistics is crucial for ensuring your goods reach their destination on time, in perfect condition, and in compliance with all necessary regulations.

At Anderson Trucking Service (ATS), we understand how daunting it can be to approach air freight services because we spend our days helping shippers like you choose the best transportation method for their freight. 

Our guide to air freight will walk you through the entire process in simple terms. We’ll cover all the key steps and considerations, from cost factors to required documents and more. 

By the end of this article, you'll have a comprehensive understanding of air cargo shipments and feel empowered to make informed decisions tailored to your unique shipping needs. 

How Do I Ship Air Freight?

Whether shipping via air domestically or internationally, the process is very similar from the shipper’s point of view. 

At the outset of any air freight shipment, your freight forwarder will ask you the same questions you might field on an over-the-road (OTR) shipment. These questions include, but aren’t limited to:

  • What is the origin of this shipment?
  • What is the destination for this shipment?
  • What are the cargo dimensions? 
  • What’s the cargo commodity? 
  • Is the cargo hazardous? 

Your transportation provider will then determine the type of aircraft necessary to ship freight: either a commercial plane or a cargo plane. This is determined largely by the size and weight of your shipment. 

You’ll then be given an air freight quote for that shipment. Depending on the type of shipping (domestic or international) and the cargo in question, you may receive either a lump sum rate or a dimensional rate. 

A lump sum rate is a fixed, flat-rate cost to transport a specific amount of cargo regardless of the cargo’s weight or volume. A dimensional rate is a shipping cost determined by either the weight or volume in square feet, whichever is greater. 

Once the rate is accepted, your transportation provider will work with you to gather the necessary documents for shipping. 

Both domestic and international shipments will require you as a shipper to provide a commercial invoice, packing list, and a shipper's letter of instructions (SLI). A air waybill (AWB) will then be produced by the air carrier. 

An AWB functions much like a bill of lading (BOL) does in OTR freight shipping; it serves as a legal contract between shipper and carrier, confirms receipt of the freight by the carrier, and provides tracking information on the shipment.

International air freight shipments will have additional required paperwork addressing customs, duties, and tariffs — the specifics of which depend on the countries involved. 

Your transportation provider will be able to tell you which documents are required for your specific shipments and help you complete them thoroughly and correctly. 

Paperwork may be a boring task on your to-do list, but it’s a vital one. Timely, complete, and accurate documents ensure your freight moves on your desired timeline without any delays or additional fees. 

After your documents are completed and submitted to your carrier, your shipment is ready to fly! All that’s left is to get your freight off a truck and onto the aircraft. 

Freight is loaded onto an aircraft by personnel

In many instances, transportation providers will work with trusted co-loaders to handle the actual loading and unloading of cargo onto aircraft. 

Co-loaders are transportation providers that have Indirect Air Carrier (IAC) certification through the United States Transportation Security Administration (TSA) and/or the International Air Transport Association (IATA). 

These certifications affirm the holders’ adherence to security standards and provide the clearances necessary to access restricted areas of domestic and international airports, respectively, to load cargo on and off aircraft. 

While your primary transportation provider will remain your point of contact throughout the shipping process, if they’re partnering with a co-loader to move your shipment, the co-loader will be the entity responsible for issuing your AWB. 

The co-loader will also be the last to touch your freight before it flies, so if you have any handling concerns they should know about, be sure to communicate those to your primary provider. 

What Does Air Freight Shipping Cost?

Air freight rates depend primarily upon shippers’ answers to these two questions: 

  • What are the dimensions (LxWxH) and weight of your cargo?
  • How fast do you need it to get there?

As the dimensions of your freight go up, so do costs. The same is true of shipping speed; shipping air freight overnight will cost much more than a shipment that can take its sweet time getting where it’s going. 

Product type doesn’t matter nearly as much as size and speed, unless the cargo is considered hazmat. Hazmat freight is more costly to ship than standard goods due to the degree of risk involved. 

Seasonality also factors into air freight rates. Americans think of “the holiday season” as November and December, but the air freight industry is necessarily more globally-minded. 

Holidays in China, South Korea, Taiwan, Qatar, and other countries all impact the global supply chain, making it more expensive to ship during these times. 

Finally, your shipping lane will contribute to your costs. Shippers should expect to pay more to send freight to the middle of nowhere (or, at least, a location far removed from any international airport) than to bustling metropolitan areas. For example, shipping into Bismarck, North Dakota will likely cost more than shipping into Minneapolis, Minnesota. 

Boxed freight waiting to be loaded onto an aircraft

How Long Does Air Freight Take to Deliver? 

International air freight timelines typically range from seven to 12 days, depending on the lane, time of year, and aircraft capacity. 

Air freight charters, a service through which shippers purchase exclusive use of an aircraft for the duration of a flight, generally range from 5 to 7 days, with all the same dependencies as a non-chartered flight. 

Domestic air freight timelines are much quicker, simply because of the volume of options available. 

Most transportation providers will offer domestic air shipping at three levels based on turnaround times: next day, second day, and deferred. Deferred air freight typically takes 3 to 5 days to arrive. 

What Restrictions are Placed on Air Freight?

The types of freight you can and cannot ship by air will depend largely on your transportation provider. At ATS, for example, we do not ship perishables, pets, livestock, artwork, and personal effects or personal household goods (like Grandma’s kitchen table — we will, however, ship boxed or palletized furniture from retailers like IKEA, etc.) 

Shippers moving hazardous freight by air must complete a Dangerous Goods Shipper’s Declaration (DGD) before it can be accepted. The DGD confirms that the freight in question has been packaged, labeled, and declared in accordance with the International Air Transport Association’s (IATA) Dangerous Goods Regulations (DGR).

Regardless of your freight type, all goods  shipped via air must be palletized, crated, or skidded to fly. Otherwise, the airline may not accept your freight, causing delays to your shipment. 

Cargo is loaded off an aircraft

How Does Air Cargo Insurance Work? 

Like other types of cargo insurance, air cargo insurance protects the shipper or consignee (depending on the policy), from costs that could result from a damaged, misplaced, or stolen air shipment. 

Freight carriers provide a limited amount of insurance coverage on all freight, which is known as carrier liability. Carrier liability typically doesn’t cover the needs of most air cargo shippers, so companies that frequently ship via air will pursue their own policies or riders for greater coverage. 

If a transportation provider is not IATA certified and is working through a co-loader to arrange air freight movement, the co-loader may also provide insurance on the shipments in question. 

In some instances, shippers moving high-value freight may need to sign a high cargo waiver, which authorizes a carrier to provide additional insurance on high-value goods. 

What are the Pros and Cons of Air Freight vs. Vessel Freight?

The primary advantage of shipping via air instead of sea is speed. Even the longest international timelines for air freight generally top out at around two weeks, maximum. Meanwhile, ocean vessel freight regularly takes anywhere from 10 to 45 days to deliver — sometimes even longer. 

The other major advantage of air freight is its lower rate of “touches,” meaning how often your shipment is handled. Less handling translates to less risk of damage to the product — which means less risk of financial loss for shippers. 

From a cost perspective, it’s all relative: Small shipments may be more cost-effective to ship by air, but if you’re going to need a charter or partial charter, air freight will be more expensive than shipping via sea vessel. 

But shipping air freight isn’t all blue skies and sunshine 24/7/365. 

Space is at a premium when shipping via air, especially around holiday seasons across the globe. 

Even planes built specifically for cargo transport have dimensional limitations. Ocean vessels allow companies to ship bigger. Not having to split goods into multiple shipments can result in cost savings, if the shipper doesn’t mind the prolonged timeline of ocean freight. 

An ocean vessel loaded with freight shipping containers

There’s also the issue of airport access. 

Drivers must hold TSA certification to access restricted areas of TSA-controlled airports to load and unload cargo. This certification can only be obtained by carriers that are TSA-certified IACs. Likewise, to access restricted areas of international airports, carriers must be IAC certified through IATA. 

In contrast, accessing ocean freight is as easy for drivers as obtaining a TWIC certification, which does not require them to work for an IAC. This lowers the barrier to access significantly, as a TWIC certification can be pursued by drivers regardless of what carrier(s) they’re driving for.  

So, how do you decide if shipping by air or sea is right for you? It will ultimately come down to your freight type, timeline, and budget, but it’s always wise to ask your provider for their expert advice. 

They’ll have a strong handle on the current market and will be your best resource for determining which shipping method will meet your needs most effectively. 

Find Your Best-Fit Freight Forwarder

The speed and efficiency of air freight can provide significant advantages, particularly for time-sensitive shipments.

Now that you understand the key elements of this shipping method — including cost factors, necessary documentation, and the pros and cons compared to ocean freight — you're well-equipped to make informed decisions for your company.

Whether you're shipping domestically or internationally, these insights will help you maximize the benefits of air freight, ensuring your goods reach their destination swiftly and securely.

By leveraging the expertise of your transportation provider and ensuring thorough preparation, you can streamline your air freight operations, minimize risks, and enhance the overall success of your shipping strategy. 

If you’re looking for a transportation provider to help guide you through the process of shipping via air, check out our free Freight Broker Selection Checklist. 

It provides a comprehensive rubric for evaluating your current and future brokers on key performance indicators like carrier selection, industry expertise, and more. 

Refer to it as a tool throughout your vetting process as you choose the best-fit broker for your freight. 

Tags: Transportation Services, International Shipping, International Shipping Documentation, Multimodal Shipping, ATS International, Shipping Services

Richard Phillips

Written by Richard Phillips

Richard has been an integral part of ATS' success over the last 15 years. Today, Richard serves as the managing director of supply chain solutions where he strives to develop out-of-the-box Logistics solutions that create value for his customers.

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