Air Freight vs. Air Cargo: Is there a Difference?

The terms air freight and air cargo are interchangeable and denote the same concept in the shipping industry.  The differences that you will encounter whether you use the term air freight or air cargo has to do with the type of company with which you are dealing for the shipping.

Air Freight vs. Air Cargo: Is there a Difference? Air freight and air cargo refer to the fees paid to the carrier operating the transporting the cargo.  Air cargo happens in two ways.

  • The cargo is transported on a plane owned by a third party.
  • A freight company moves cargo on their own planes.

Shipping, either domestically or internationally, is governed by an array of national and international rules and laws.  Making the wrong mistake can end with your cargo impounded or seized. Understanding the advantages and disadvantages of shipping with a freight company or handling the shipping details yourself can be the difference in a happy outcome or a financial disaster.

Freight Forwarders

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One common means of arranging for your air cargo to get from one place to another is to work with a freight forwarding company.  These companies do not own the aircraft on which the cargo is transported. They bundle shipments and contract with the operators of the aircraft for the cargo to be moved.

Using a freight forwarder has some advantages.

  • Speed and Flexibility – Today’s business environment is fast-paced and the least delay can cost hundreds if not thousands of dollars.  Freight forwarders are professionals who know all the ins and outs of moving cargo. They know how to mitigate problems and delays. Freight forwarders can often offer you a choice of carriers and classes of shipping.
  • Cost-Effectiveness – Freight forwarders deal in bulk shipments with air carriers.  Their business is consolidating shipments from many customers into bulk shipments.  This maximizes the efficiency of the transactions and can translate into huge savings for their customers.
  • Regulatory Problems – Freight forwarders act as the agent for their customers when dealing with transportation officials, customs officials, and aircraft operators.  Over time they tend to develop relationships with all of these people, which often leads to much more efficient shipping.
  • Operational EaseHiring a freight company can give you much more operational flexibility and reduced costs.  Most freight forwarders can provide you with almost minute by minute tracking of your freight consignment.  This facilitates good communication with your customers or with other parts of your company to manage availability and readiness.

There are a few disadvantages to hiring a freight forwarding company.

  • Control Issues – Once you hand your cargo over to the freight forwarder, you effectively lose control.  
  • Unregulated Operators – Many freight forwarders are unregulated.  The country from which they originate and operate may have few, if any, regulations or control.  

Usually, if you are careful in choosing the freight forwarder with which you work, the advantages outweigh the disadvantages for your business.  

Cargo Airlines

Cargo Airlines specialize in hauling freight or cargo by air.  Many of these companies are subsidiary divisions of well known airline companies.  There are companies that exist solely as air freight companies. One of the best known is FedEx Express, which flies more miles per year than any other air cargo carrier in the world.

Dealing directly with a cargo airline raises challenges on several different fronts but does have its own advantages

  • Speed and Ease of Use – Most air cargo carriers will accept packages in a number of ways.  Most have drop off locations where you can get help with labeling and declarations from knowledgeable staff.
  • Tracking Almost every air cargo carrier offers an array of options to track your package or cargo from the time it is accepted at their drop off location until it arrives in the hands of someone at its intended destination.
  • Fast and Dependable –  Air cargo is one of the fastest and most dependable means of moving valuable merchandise from one place to another anywhere on the globe.  This is especially important for time-sensitive and perishable cargos.

There are disadvantages to dealing directly with an air cargo carrier.

  • The overriding disadvantage of dealing directly with an air cargo carrier is the cost, especially to smaller businesses that can’t make up a bulk shipment to qualify for bulk rate discounts.  Typically, freight charges are based on weight, but size may also be a factor. In addition, some air cargo carriers may charge a premium for smaller packages based on the extra handling involved.
  • Weather can always be a factor in dealing with air cargo.  Air flight is at the mercy of weather conditions which can conspire to delay flights despite the best efforts of the air cargo company to cope.

In many cases, the advantages of dealing directly with an air cargo company outweigh the disadvantage.  It is often simpler, especially on domestic air cargo, to deal directly with the air carrier as opposed to hiring a freight forwarder to handle the shipment.

Tips to Successfully Using Air Cargo

If you need to send a package or cargo and be sure that it will arrive safely and securely, on time and intact, you have probably come to the conclusion that air freight is your best alternative.  There are a few things that you can do to ensure that your package or cargo makes the journey safely and arrives at its intended destination.

  • Labeling and Marking – Every package should be labeled and marked appropriate, not just on one face but on two adjoining sides.  The labeling should include the name, address, and phone number of the shipper and the intended recipient of the package. 
  • Use the Appropriate Labels – Each air carrier now uses a standardized electronic air waybill.  However, each carrier may also require you to use their specific labels on your packages.  Make sure that you have all the appropriate labels in the appropriate places.
  • Include an Invoice or Packing Slip – This is especially important on international shipments.  If an invoice or packing slip is not included, your shipment may be delayed by customs officials or worse, confiscated or shipped back at your cost.
  • Use new and fresh packaging – Reused boxes are one of the biggest problems that air carriers have when handling packages.  Corrugated fiberboard is a great packaging material, but the stresses and abuse add up on these containers.  A used box may look undamaged but these recycled boxes are more prone to failure than new boxes.
  • Pack properly and don’t overpack – The temptation is always to get as much into one box as possible.  There is a false economy in this approach. An overpacked box is more likely to fail than a box that is properly packed and sealed.  Don’t be tempted to force products into a box.

 

Air Freight for Everyone

Shipping air cargo or air freight, depending on how you want to reference it, has become a defacto standard for shipping around the world.  Anyone who has sent a package via FedEx has probably inadvertently shipped air cargo. Whether it is your daughter’s birthday gift going across the US or a cargo of machine parts destined for a manufacturing facility halfway around the world, air freight is within reach of anyone.  

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About The Author

Mike Eberl
Mike Eberl
Mike is Founder and CEO of Customodal. Having a nearly 30 year history owning companies which provided asset-based ground freight, parcel shipping, air freight and charter flight services, Mike harnessed that knowledge into a Top-Tier logistics company when he started Customodal.

To read more about Mike, check out his full bio here.

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