Air Freight 101: 5 Concepts and 21 Terms You Need to Know

As you optimize your supply chain, adding air freight to your mix of shipping options can give you an edge. With its quick and reliable delivery times, air freight gets your goods in the hands of your customers exactly when they need them.

If you’re new to air freight—or you want to discover more about how it can help you respond quickly to market demand—we’ve got you covered. Below, we’ll introduce you to the big concepts around air freight as well as the terminology you’ll hear so you can navigate the arena like a pro and secure its advantages for your organization.

Air Freight Concept #1: Who’s Who?

Growing companies often outsource services so they can access established expertise quickly. Shipping and logistics are no different. As your operation expands, you may find yourself exploring your options.

One option you’ll find is a third-party logistics company or a 3PL.

3PL (3rd Party Logistics) – An all-in-one contract company who can handle packing, billing, shipping, distribution, warehousing, and fulfillment services.

Depending on your company’s needs, you may not require all the services of a 3PL.
In that case, you will likely want to consider working with a freight forwarder, who may be able to offer you a custom solution that covers many of these services, depending on your needs.

Freight Forwarder – An agency that receives freight from a shipper and arranges for transportation with one or more carriers to the final destination. While the forwarder does not always handle the freight itself, it contracts with other carriers to move goods via road, rail, ocean and air.

Freight forwarders excel at handling complex logistics and coordinating multiple carriers, offering you a single point of contact as you move a shipment from its origin to its final destination. They can also help secure lower prices for you by using their established relationships and expertise to find you cost-effective routes, sometimes through consolidating freight for better rates. Freight forwarders may also provide packaging, temporary freight storage and customs clearing services.

No matter what type of company you decide to outsource with, look one who can create a custom solution that meets your specific needs—and simplifies the logistics that you have to deal with on a day-to-day basis.

Air Freight Concept #2: Air Freight Service Levels

When you decide that the benefits of air freight are right for your business, you’ll need to choose the right service level for your shipment.

To help you choose the right one, we’ve laid out the most common air freight options, starting with the fastest (and the most expensive):

Air Freight Service Levels, Listed by Speed

  • Air Charter – The highest priority of air freight service, in which you charter (rent) an aircraft for your exclusive use. Offers global coverage.
  • Part Charter – High-priority air freight service, in which your agent secures space on an already scheduled flight.
    First Flight Out – High-priority air freight service. Your agent books space on the next available flight(s) between two points.
  • Express – Priority air freight service, in which your agent books space on the first available flights with the quickest transit time.
  • Standard – General air freight service. Your agent books space on flights that offer speed relative to other non-air-freight options, as well as reduced pricing
  • Deferred – Low-cost air freight service with the lowest air carrier service. Longer transit times will apply.
  • Consolidated – Also called “consol.” Lowest cost air freight service. The agent accumulates freights at a warehouse and ships when cargo exceeds 1,000 lbs. Discover more about consolidated air freight.

As you’ll see in the chart, air freight offers you a wide variety of speeds at a wide variety of prices. If you need your shipment moved ASAP, an air charter can get it done. However, if you need a cost-effective way to move high-value goods more quickly than ocean freight, consolidated air freight might be right for you.

Talk to your agent or freight forwarder about these options. They can help you develop a quote that fits your desired transit time and budget.

Air Freight Concept #3: Air Freight Pricing Models

Air freight is priced a little different than other shipping options. Your air freight cost is calculated based on your shipment’s actual weight or its volumetric weight, whichever is greater.

Actual weight: The gross weight of your shipment in pounds.

Volumetric weight (also known as dimensional weight): An estimated weight based on calculated dimensions.

The larger of the two becomes what is called your chargeable weight.

Chargeable weight: The weight your carrier ultimately uses to calculate the cost of your move; either the gross weight or volumetric weight, whichever is larger.

To calculate the volumetric weight, carriers use something called a “dim factor” to calculate your dimensional weight.

In other words:

Cubic Feet of Your Shipment x Dim Factor = Dimensional Weight

Although it varies by carrier and route, one formula that many shippers use is:

Dimensional Weight Formula for Domestic Shipments:
Cubic Feet of Your Shipment x 8.9 = Dimensional Weight

Dimensional Weight Formula for International Shipments:
Cubic Feet of Your Shipment x 10.4 = Dimensional Weight

As you pack your air freight shipments, keep in mind that both weight and volume matter when it comes to your final pricing. To keep your shipments cost-effective, use the smallest possible container and don’t overdo it on the packing materials.

Air Freight Concept #4: Customs and Imports

Trouble with customs is the #1 reason international air freight shipments get delayed. The best way to prevent this? Work with your shipping agent to make sure all your paperwork is in order. The main piece you’ll need to include is a commercial invoice.

Commercial Invoice – An invoice for import and export declaration purposes, stating the commercial price and the cost of freight, insurance, packing and other miscellaneous charges. May also be called a “pro forma invoice.”

Although a good agent will work with you to minimize any customs snags, you should also familiarize yourself with some of the common terms so you can knowledgeably navigate the costs of importing and exporting goods for your company, including:

Duty – The tax imposed on goods imported to a country.

Embargo – A customs embargo is established to prohibit the importation of a specific type of goods, usually because the product is protected in trade laws. For example, in 2015 the Nigerian government lifted an embargo on the import of textiles into the country.

HTS (Harmonized Tariff Schedule) Code – The number assigned to a commodity to determine amount of duty to be charged.

VAT – Value added tax that can be added at many stages of a product’s life, from production to purchase.

By understanding customs terminology and requirements—even when your agent is coordinating clearance for you-you’ll eliminate one of the most common problems that hold up air freight shipments.

Additionally, to ensure on-time delivery of your package, you may also want to review these best practices for prepping your air freight shipment.

Air Freight Concept #5: The Planes and Containers Moving Your Shipments

When you ship via air freight, there are three types of planes your shipment may go on. Although your shipping agent will take care of choosing the right route, you’ll likely hear these terms thrown around, so you’ll want to be familiar with them:

Passenger aircraft – An aircraft that carries passengers on the main deck and cargo on the lower deck.

Cargo aircraft – An airplane that is used to ship only cargo, no passenger traffic.

Combi aircraft – A type of plane that combines the transport of passengers and cargo on the main deck of the aircraft.

The other piece you’ll want to be familiar with is the type of container your cargo will travel in: the unit load device.

ULD (unit load device) – A container used for baggage, cargo and mail on wide-body and narrow-body aircraft.

ULDs also may be contoured to fit specific aircraft. ULDs create efficiencies in air shipping by condensing several shipments into one container, each with their own packing list that tracks the contents.

If your shipment doesn’t fit in a ULD, it will be considered oversized cargo. This type of cargo can be more costly and more difficult to ship. To control costs, talk with your shipping agent about the dimensions of your shipments so your goods can fit into a ULD.

Opening Up Air Freight Options for Your Business

The right shipping and logistics partner will make air freight easy for you, by acting as your one-stop shop for moving your goods from their origin all the way to their final destination. However, understanding these concepts and industry terms around them will help you ask the right questions and choose the right options for your needs. Armed with this knowledge, you’ll know exactly how to use air freight to your company’s advantage.