Air France B747-400F

Air freight is very much the premium end of the cargo business. It is used mainly for urgent and high-value items. Manufacturers use it for receiving ‘just in time’ components, and for distributing new products in high demand at their launch.

There are restrictions on the weight and size of the goods that can be carried – and there is a longer list of prohibited items. Packaging is of special importance: and pricing is mostly weight-based.

Air freight tracking is as sophisticated as passenger control, and clients can see where their shipment is at a given time.

The air freight market is currently depressed due to high fuel costs, improving surface transport and other market changes, and prices are keener than usual due to supplier competition. Freight forwarders can achieve good consolidated shipment rates.

 Air Freight Options

The majority of shippers will opt for the relatively affordable option of Consolidated Freight or ‘Consols’. As with sea freight, this is where the freight forwarder combines your shipment with others to create a more cost-effective load and gets better rates from the airline due to the economy of scale.

It does take time to put together loads this way and the flights handling consolidated freight are less frequent than dedicated services. They often run once or twice a week (commonly Wednesdays and Saturdays) to main destinations, so transit times may be around 5-7 days. Each freight forwarder has its own House Airway Bill (HAWB).

Companies who have more goods to ship may fill a scheduled plane hold and they can use a ‘Back to Back’ or Direct service. This will often travel on the next available flight direct to its destination, using just one Master Airway Bill (MAWB).

At considerable extra cost it is possible to arrange Aircraft Charter of a freight plane. This is paid for in advance, cancellation charges are steep and the customer pays for a round trip. However, it can be possible to take advantage of empty ‘backhaul’ flights at better rates on some routes.

Priority ‘Next Flight Out’ services are normally restricted to a baggage-based (as opposed to freight) check in of a package that is ultra-urgent.

Air freight forwarders can offer the usual options including collection, customs clearance, delivery and also special cargo requirements.

Pricing of Air Freight

Due to the on-cost of carrying any surplus kilos on an aircraft, weight (not volume) is the main basis on which air freight rates are charged. Only if you have an oversized item does size become a key factor in pricing.

Air freight forwarders have the advantage that they are able to offer purely weight-based charges, while couriers normally charge extra for each individual item that they have to account for.

If you can get your goods to fill or near-fill the standardised Unit Load Devices (ULDs) that fit the front hold, you will get the best rates. Their internal dimensions are (approx.) 307 cm long x 213 cm wide x 193 cm (max) high.

Whereas there is a competitive market for Consols, Direct consignments are subject to agreed TACT (the Air Cargo Tariff) common carrier rates that most airlines apply.

At the time of writing the market is depressed and prices are competitive, despite high fuel costs.

 Prohibited Items for Air Freight

In addition to those items that may not be carried by sea freight, there are additional restrictions on air cargo for items that may endanger the aircraft or passengers’ health or safety, or cause property damage, the main categories being:

  1. Explosives: fireworks and firecrackers, detonating fuses, etc.;
  2. Gases: such as compressed gas, dry ice, fire extinguisher, gas cartridge, inflated ball, respirator, explosive automotive airbag, aerosol, gas lighter, gas cylinder, and lamp bulb etc.;
  3. Flammable liquid: e.g. paint, gasoline, alcohol, engine oil, camphor oil, engine starting fluid, turpentine, thinner, mucilage, perfume, insect sprays,  air freshener etc.
  4. Flammable solid, pyrophoric substances, and substances that emit flammable gases in contact with water: e.g. activated carbon, titanium powder, copra, castor products, rubber debris, safety matches, dry white phosphorus , dry yellow phosphorus, magnesium powder, and solid gum, etc.
  5. Toxic and infectious items: pesticides, lithium batteries
  6. Corrosive items: e.g. batteries, alkaline battery electrolyte
  7. Magnetic substances without degaussing packaging, magnetic steel and other strong magnetic products: e.g. currency detectors, speakers, magnets
  8. Items dangerous to public health: e.g. corpses & bones (inc. incinerated), untanned hides, animal bones not processed with chemicals
  9. Oxidizers, organic peroxides, radioactive materials & corrosive items: e.g. chemical medicines, lab chemicals (potassium permanganate, sulphuric acid)
  10. Powder, liquids, pastes, and other items with danger signs on their packaging
  11. Biochemical products and infectious materials of all kinds: e.g. bacillus anthracis, dangerous pathogens, medical wastes

Biochemical products and infectious materials of all kinds: e.g. bacillus anthracis, dangerous pathogens, medical wastes
Other restrictions will apply due to national laws and regulations of specific airlines. One example is that following the discovery of bombs on a flight due to leave the UK in 2010, the Government imposed a temporary ban on the carriage of printer cartridges from unapproved shippers.

Individuals who are sending personal effects or household items in a crate have to supply a full packing list.

Packaging your Items

Air freight companies know that most items they carry are urgent, high-value, time-sensitive or perishable, and as such they need particular attention when being packed. Some issues are –

Perishables must be packed to travel for (at least) 24 hours without spoilage: styrofoam boxes need to be overwrapped.

Anything longer or wider than 213 cm needs special packing to avoid flexing – test when picked up to ensure it does not sag. Protect long ends the most, where handling will occur.

Consult with your air freight service as to what is the recommended maximum weight for each size of corrugated fibreboard box (always use a double-skinned type). Wooden crates are preferred to fibreboard.

Fill any voids in boxes with ‘dunnage’ (surplus paper, board, packing material) or loose fill cushioning to avoid the load moving and getting damaged.

For extra protection from pilferage, use measures that may include cargo bags to enclose your shipments, one-time strapping seals, opaque stretch wrap and/or tamper-evident tape.