What is Air Freight Shipping & When To Use It

Posted in Shipping on Jan 27, 2020, tagged with commercial shipping, freight shipping

What is Air Freight Shipping & When To Use It

By land, by sea, or by air, there are several different freight options for you to choose from. You may have a personal preference or an idea in mind of which method will work best for you or your company, but each method offers its own benefits and drawbacks. Knowing the pros and cons of each of these options can help you choose the one that makes the most sense for your shipment.

In this post, we’re going to focus on air freight. Before we dig into the best uses for air freight, here’s a bit of background on what air freight actually is:

What is air freight?

Air freight refers to any cargo shipped via an airplane. It’s the fastest freight shipping method, and it’s more secure and reliable than other shipping options. However, it can be quite expensive—sometimes prohibitively so.

There are two different types of air freight:

  1. Express air freight - small shipments handled end-to-end by one parcel shipping carrier or company (DHL, UPS or FedEx), typically delivered in five days or less.
  2. International air freight - large shipments that are usually handled by multiple carriers over the course of the shipping process.

Prohibited items

Like with all methods of shipping, there are items that cannot be shipped via air freight. The items that can’t be shipped vary by national law and airline regulations. Prohibited items most commonly include things such as:

  • Gases
  • Flammable items
  • Toxic or corrosive items
  • Magnetic substances
  • Public health risks
  • Oxidizers and biochemical products
  • Items marked with “danger” or “hazard” symbols

Considerations for air freight cargo

There are benefits and drawbacks to all shipping methods, and air freight is no different. For some, it will be quite obvious whether air freight is the right choice, while others will need to weigh these considerations carefully and decide which shipping method is best.


  • Speed - Air freight is far and away the fastest method for shipping your freight, and is often subject to the fewest (and shortest!) delays. Ocean, road, and rail transportation all have their benefits, but they can’t compete with the 575 mph speeds of a cargo plane.
  • Reliability - Not only does air freight have the shortest travel times, but it also boasts the most dependable arrival and departure times of any freight shipping service. Delays are often significantly reduced because they don’t have to worry about road or rail conditions, and weather conditions cause much shorter delays—think a few hours or days rather than an extra week or more.
  • Security - Air cargo has better safety controls and less handling than other freight methods, so there is less risk of damage, less risk of items “falling off the truck”, or even being outright hijacked.
  • Destinations - Thanks to the flexibility flight offers, airlines have a huge network of delivery destinations that all other forms of shipping are unable to offer. Since air freight isn’t limited by roads, rails, or waterways, it can reach more destinations and smaller locations than the other options.


  • Size - Airplanes lack the size options of trains and ocean freight, which can offer large or multiple shipping containers for larger shipments at a lower cost. Airplanes can only offer so much space and carry so much weight while still being safe to fly. For this reason, air freight is charged by volumetric (dimensional) or actual weight—whichever is higher.

TSI TIP: Volumetric weight is calculated by multiplying the shipment’s volume in cubic meters by 167.

The way to calculate volume is determined by the shape of the object, but for a rectangle you multiply its length x width x height, then divide the result by one million to get the volume in cubic meters. Then you multiply this by 167 to get the volumetric weight.

L * W * H = Volume
V / 1, 000, 000 = Volume in Cubic Meters
VCM * 167 = Volumetric Weight

  • Environmental - For all its conveniences, CO2 emissions are much higher for air freight than for other shipping methods—something that should be on everyone’s mind these days, regardless of the type of business you operate. “A Defra study concludes that 2 tonnes of freight carried for 5,000 km by a small container ship creates 150 kg of CO2e (a measure of relative global warming potential) compared to 6,605 kg of CO2e if the freight is carried by plane for the same distance” (Lucy Siegle, The Guardian).

TSI TIP: If you are concerned about the environmental impact of air freight but there is no other method you can use, consider investing in Carbon Offsets.

  • Customs - The customs process can be difficult to navigate, especially for international shipments.
  • Cost - There are a lot of cost considerations when it comes to air freight. Firstly, the overall cost will be greater, often thousands of dollars higher than shipping by ocean or land freight. While you may see some savings in aspects like packaging and warehousing, that money is often spent elsewhere, such as fuel and security surcharges, stops and transfers, terminal fees, customs brokerage, pickup and delivery fees, and accessorial charges.

When to use air freight

Air freight is typically best used when the cost of sending the shipment is less than 20% of the cost of the shipment, making it an ideal option for commercial shipments of smaller, high-value goods or time-sensitive items, such as:

  • Electronics
  • Seasonal products (such as apparel and other holiday products)
  • Pharmaceuticals
  • Documents and samples

It can also be used for non-commercial shipments to send delicate and valuable items such as antiques, family heirlooms, or important documents.


Air freight is the fastest, most secure and most reliable shipping method, with the widest range of shipping destinations, but it has downsides. It can be prohibitively expensive, space is limited, and it has the greatest environmental impact of all of the freight shipping methods. Save air freight for shipments that are:

  • Commercial
  • Expensive or high-value
  • Seasonal or time-sensitive
  • Pharmaceutical in nature
  • Sensitive documents that require high levels of security

Other Types of Freight Shipping

Air freight not for you? Learn about other types of freight shipping in our Freight Shipping for Buiness guide.

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