Getting an item from point A to point B has always been a problem for humans to solve. Of course, land transportation was the first method used to ship goods. As humans evolved, so did shipping transportation methods. Air freight is latest shipping method (except for Space Freight, which is a very specific mode of transportation so we won’t discuss it here). Sending items via air freight has only been around for about a century, and has both advantages and disadvantages.
Advantages of Air Freight
Air freight and speed go hand in hand. When your cargo needs to be moved quickly air freight is the fastest available solution. FedEx air freight, as discussed in a previous post, can ship package from Hong Kong to Delaware in 1-2 days, while the same delivery by sea could take anywhere from 30 to 60 days or even more.
Air freight is unique because it can get packages to virtually anywhere. Dozens of airlines serve more than 200 destinations each, while the top 5 airlines (American Airlines, Air Canada, United, Delta, Turkish Airlines) fly to more than 300 destinations. This gives air freight the advantage over other modes of transportation - sea freight can’t drive on land and land freight can’t swim.
Highly accurate ship dates
Unlike other shipping methods, air freight is highly reliable - according to flightstats, in 2016 the late arrival rate was less 15% and flight cancellation rate was less than 2% for top 5 airlines. In fact this reliability made possible for postal service companies to guarantee overnight delivery using air freight. Cargo that travels via ocean has a huge range in delivery dates. This variability in delivery dates is caused by the loading and unloading time in ports, which can bottleneck due to shortage of space, equipment and machinery, or workforce.
Almost all air freight carriers provide online tracking service. Tracking service is becoming more common in land and sea shipping companies too.
Lower risk and costs due to short transit times
Because air freight has very short lead times, chances of goods being spoiled or stolen are very low. Short shipping time makes it possible to deliver perishable goods and valuable goods (like precious metals, jewelry, and banknotes) with far less risk of theft. Due to this lowered risk, and also the high level of security in airports, insurance costs for air freight are usually 10% - 30% lower than those for ocean freight. As ordered items can be delivered very quickly (usually less than a week), there is no need to keep high volumes of items in stock to ensure you won't run out before the next air freight shipment arrives. With fewer backstock items in your warehouse, there’s less risk of items becoming obsolete or getting damaged while they wait their turn to be sold.
Disadvantages of Air Freight
Cost is the biggest downside. Usually, shipping via air freight costs more, relative to the land or sea freight for the same distance. For example: delivery of 500 kg by FedEx from Hong Kong to Delaware may cost you 13000 USD, while sea freight will be around 3000 USD. Interestingly, prices for 100 kg will decrease to around 3000 USD with FedEx and won’t change for sea freight. This is because air freight cost is calculated primarily by weight, while sea and land freight is calculated primarily by volume.
Airlines decide how much they will charge you based on chargeable weight. Chargeeable weight is the greater between actual weight vs. volume weight of a shipment. Actual weight is the weight of the cargo when it is weighed on a scale.
Volume weight, also known as dimensional weight, is less straightforward, and requires some calculation:
For international air freight: the conversion is: 166 cubic inch = 1 pound (in metric system: 6,000 cubic cm = 1kg). That means, if the volume of your freight is 4,000 cubic inch, your dimensional weight is 4,000/166 = 24.096 pounds. This means the way your freight is packaged will really affect your dimensional weight, and therefore the more compact the package is, the better.
If your freight’s actual weight is 30 pounds, which is higher than 24.096 pounds - then your chargeable weight is 30 pounds.
If your freight’s actual weight is 20 pounds, which is lower than 24.096 pounds - then your chargeable weight is 24 pounds.
Domestic air freight within the US is slightly more expensive, the conversion is 194 cubic inch = 1 pound. The conversion may change over years and can be slightly different across carriers, so for absolute accuracy, you should cross check with your freight forwarder.
Size and weight limitation
Planes are relatively small compared to huge ships – this limits of the size and weight of the air freight that can be handled. The world's biggest airplane built - AN-225 – can lift only 250 tons. In contrast, the largest container ship - OOCL Hong Kong – can lift more than 190,000 tons. This is even more problematic if it is not a cargo plane but a passenger plane where goods have the lowest boarding priority - after the passengers and their luggage.
While weather can cause problems to the ground or sea shipping services, it is a bigger problem for air freight. Airports ground flights during inclement weather conditions, like hurricanes and blizzards. It doesn’t happen very often - in 2016 less than 2% of flights were canceled in top airports in US, but it can have a big influence on air freight when the exact delivery time is required.
Clearly, there are far more advantages to the air freight than disadvantages. Like almost every decision in the supply chain, choosing air freight over other methods hinges on a trade-off between the price and quality. The rule of thumb is if you need to quickly deliver something relatively small and don’t mind high prices – choose air freight. If you have plenty of time and would rather save money land or sea freight is the better option.