Air freight offers you the advantage of being able to move shipments quickly—and with a minimum amount of handling. However, when your cargo includes items that are considered hazardous, there are a few regulations you’ll need to comply with in order to leverage this mode of transport.  

Even if you’re familiar with shipping hazardous materials via ocean freight, you should know that air freight has its own unique set of rules. These regulations keep your shipment safe in transit. They also protect the plane and its aircrew as they move your cargo to its destination. 

To help you keep compliant with the hazardous materials regulations—and ensure timely delivery of your shipments—we’ll answer the four most common questions we receive around moving hazardous materials via air freight. 

Question #1: Why Are Hazardous Materials Regulations So Important?  

Improperly packaged or positioned hazardous materials can create catastrophic conditions in an airplane in a very short period of time. For example, fire in an aircraft can be extremely dangerous. In fact, research has revealed that, after the initial indication of a fire, an airline crew has only approximately 17 minutes to get the aircraft on the ground.i 

In fact, improperly packaged and labeled chemical oxygen generators caused the crash of ValuJet flight 592 in May of 1996. The plane crashed in the Florida Everglades with no survivors. Additionally, other planes have been forced into emergency landings after fires of unknown origin, likely from undeclared flammable liquids or improperly packed lithium batteries. 

In summary, following the hazardous materials regulations have three purposes: 

  1. To ensure the safety of the airplane and its flight crew. 
  2. To get your shipment to its destination safely—and on time.  
  3. To keep your business compliant with regulations avoid hefty fines. 

Now that you understand the why, let’s discuss the who behind these rules. 

Question #2: Who Makes the Rules Surrounding Shipping Hazardous Materials via Air Freight? 

Because air freight is an international issue that impacts companies in many different industries, the hazardous materials rules for air freight were created through the collaboration of several organizations. 

There are two major organizations primarily responsible for these safeguards and regulations: 

  • International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), a specialized agency of the United Nations. ICAO was established to create standards and practices to ensure safety, security and efficiency in aviation. 
  • International Air Transport Association (IATA), a trade association of the world’s airlines that represents around 82% of world air traffic. Their Dangerous Goods Regulations (DGR) set the standards that allow airline operators to safely transport hazardous materials.

Additionally, ICAO and IATA work in conjunction with local governments at origin and destination points. In the U.S., hazardous materials are overseen by the Department of Transportation’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA). 

When it comes to understanding the current regulations for air freight hazmat procedures, IATA’s DGR is the bible. The DGR integrates ICAO’s technical specs, IATA’s airline procedures and any additional requirements needed to create the highest level of safety.  

If you ship a lot of hazardous materials, you may want to purchase a copy of the DGR for reference. Make sure you buy the most recent edition since the rules change every year. Updates for 2019 include changes surrounding corrosive substances, lithium batteries and more. 

Question #3: What Materials Are Considered Hazardous? 

IATA breaks down hazardous materials into nine categories. If you’ve shipped hazmat via ocean freight, these categories will already be familiar to you. All the materials in these nine categories require special labeling, packaging and handling: 

  1. Explosives
  2. Gases
  3. Flammable liquids
  4. Flammable solids
  5. Oxidizing substances
  6. Toxic and infectious substances
  7. Radioactive materials
  8. Corrosives
  9. Miscellaneous dangerous goods  

When it comes to evaluating the risk surrounding your shipment, quantity matters. Perfume, for example, falls under the third category because it’s flammable. However, a full case of perfume bottles poses a much greater risk than a single bottle. PHMSA’s Hazardous Materials Table will give you insight into the quantities of hazardous materials permitted for air cargo.  

By labeling and documenting your shipment properly, you’ll do your part to ensure that your cargo gets handled appropriately. For example, several airplane fires have been attributed to the interaction of undeclared hazardous materials. Correct paperwork and labels enable cargo handlers to load the plane in a manner that reduces potential risks, including: 

  • Separating potentially interactive shipments.
  • Placing flammable shipments in a manner that will slow the spread of any potential fires. 

Question #4: Where Can I Go for Help with Shipping Hazardous Materials via Air Freight?  

An experienced freight forwarder should be able to help you properly label, pack and ship your cargo via air freight. 

Here’s what you’ll need: 

  1. The safety data sheet (SDS) on the product you’d like to ship. Also known as a material safety data sheet (MSDS) or a product safety data sheet (PSDS), the SDS will contain all of the critical information necessary to prepare your shipment, including:   
  2. The properties of any chemicals in your shipment.  
  3. Any physical, health or environmental health hazards. 
  4. What protective measures need to be taken. 
  5. Precautions for safely handling, storing, and transporting the chemical. 

If you don’t have the SDS, you can also provide your freight forwarder with:  

  • The UN (United Nations) number – A four-digit number to identify hazardous materials. 
  • The proper shipping name – The technical name used to identify the item’s hazardous properties and its composition. 

Either one of these two will help your forwarder research the shipping requirements. 

If you’re more of a do-it-yourself kind of shipper, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) offers a good set of hazmat guidelines to get you started. However, a freight forwarder can simplify much of this procedure for you, since they likely already have a trained hazardous materials expert on staff, ready to assist. 

Keeping Your Shipments—and Our Skies—Safe 

Keeping air freight within your roster of shipping options gives you the flexibility to meet your customers’ and suppliers’ needs faster. And when it comes to high-end, luxury goods, air freight can keep your shipments pristine by subjecting them to a minimal amount of handling. By understanding the regulations surrounding shipping hazardous materials via air freight, you’ll maintain access to this powerful shipping mode—and all the advantages it offers. 


Need help shipping your hazardous goods? Whether it’s via ocean, air, rail or truck, we’d be happy to help. Just get in touch with us. One of our hazardous materials experts will reach out to discuss the right paperwork, packaging and labeling to get your goods to their destination.

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