What is Air Freight Shipping? A Brief Guide for 2023


What is Air Freight Shipping? A Brief Guide for 2023

Over the years, air freight has played a pivotal role in powering the massive global trade boom. Efficient freight shipping has connected low-cost manufacturing markets in the east to the west. It has also served as the growth facilitator for the global economy by extending supply chains to untapped territories.  

With the air cargo market size expected to reach $145.2 billion by 2027 along with the upward trend in freight forwarding digitisation, it is a good time for businesses to treat air freight as a key element in strengthening their supply chain.

According to IATA,  air freight shipping enables transportation of:

  • 65.6 million cargo tonnes of goods a year
  • 35% of annual global trade by value
  • $6.8 trillion worth of goods annually
  • $18.6 billion worth of goods daily

If you seek to expand your business globally by harnessing air freight shipping, the procedures involved may cause your head to spin. 

But the key here is to walk before you fly! This article will help you understand some important air freight basics.

What is Air Freight?

Air freight refers to the aerial mode of transport designed to get larger shipments across the globe through aircraft. It is the fastest and most expensive way to move the shipment from one place to another. 

Air freight services help businesses move time-critical or fragile goods, restock business inventories, ship key components urgently, and meet customer expectations with agility & resilience.

Air freight shipping relies on airlines that sell their aircraft space to freight forwarding companies. Forwarders, in turn, with their vast network of airports around the world, fill the space with cargo.  

While anything can be delivered as air freight, two factors influence its choice as the preferred shipping method: the value of goods and the speed at which they must be transported. 

Time-sensitive products like pharmaceuticals, high-value electronic devices, perishable food items, temperature-sensitive materials, hazardous chemicals, live animals, and many other goods are air shipped, internationally and domestically.

Aside from such special products, general cargo—that does not require special handling precautions but needs speed advantage—is also moved as air freight shipment.

Types of Air freight Services

Here are some of the common types of air freight services:

  • Express service: Fastest delivery with no stops in between at a premium price.
  • Standard service: Quick delivery with a couple of stops along the way at a moderate price.
  • Deferred service: Lower-cost service when fast delivery is not a priority.
  • Charter service: Priciest service ideal for emergency or time-sensitive delivery.

How Does the Process of Air Freight Work?

The flow of air freight involves many interconnected steps—from the delivery at the origin airport to loading onto the plane, to unloading at the destination airport and final delivery to the customer. 

The harmonised execution of the above processes ensures safe and secure delivery of cargo, without any glitches. 

Let’s understand the main steps of air freight workflow. 

1. Booking and Planning the Freight

The manufacturer or the exporter decides the freight dispatch schedule and informs the intended delivery time to their overseas customer or consignee.

2. Arranging the Shipment Through the Freight Forwarder

The exporter selects their freight forwarder and asks to book a flight based on the information mentioned next.

3. Furnishing Information to the Forwarder

The forwarder receives the below details from the exporter:

  • dispatch date 
  • product content, 
  • cargo weight, 
  • delivery destination 
  • other documentation such as invoice, packing list, and shipping instructions (SI), etc. 

4. Delivering Cargo to the Forwarder’s Warehouse

Based on the flight schedule, the cargo arrives at the forwarder's warehouse. 

5. Packing of the Cargo

The cargo is packed appropriately in a carton, pallet, or wooden crate before it is collected from the warehouse for transport to the airlines.

6. Verification Before Customs Clearance

Cargo undergoes mandatory checks to ensure that it meets all the air shipping requirements such as cargo weighing, attaching air waybill (AWB), and explosive inspection. If classified as dangerous goods, a hazard label might also be attached.

The AWB, mentioning detailed information about the shipment, acts as a receipt of goods by the airlines and allows for tracking.


On completing the checks, the ground handling personnel validates the information against the booking. 

7. Processing for Export Customs Clearance

The cargo arrives at the customs warehouse, an authorised domestic location that stores international cargo. It is also the point where custom clearance procedures are conducted. The time it takes can be anywhere between a few hours to several days. 

Custom brokers specialize in handling this step and have the onus of preparing all the associated documents. 

The domestic cargo is treated as overseas cargo upon getting the export clearance permit.

8. Transferring the Cargo to the Airline’s Storage Shed

After export clearance, the cargo moves to the airline's temporary bonded area, where it is kept before it is loaded onto the aircraft. Here, cargo is consolidated onto a ULD (Unit Load Device) container or pallets. 

At this stage, the freight forwarder issues HAWB (House Air Waybill) to the exporter as a confirmation that the forwarder will deliver the goods to the address mentioned. The forwarder also receives MAWB (Master Air Waybill) from the airlines to confirm the receipt of goods.

Only then, the shipment is loaded onto the booked flight and the aircraft is departed for destination.

9. Arriving and Unloading at the Destination

After reaching the importing destination, the cargo is unloaded and shifted to the storage shed. It stays there until it obtains the import customs clearance permit. Each cargo undergoes thorough checks for any damage or loss.

10. Clearing Import Customs 

When the airline issues the local freight forwarder an arrival notice, the forwarder begins customs clearance processing. The required documentation is handed from the export forwarder to the local forwarder and then to the customs clearance agency.

11. Transferring to the Forwarder Hub  

As soon as the import authorisation is issued, the cargo moves from the bonded area onto a truck to the forwarder’s warehouse and then to the designated address of the consignee.

What Are the Pros and Cons of Air Freight?



Speedy delivery

Air shipment makes it to the destination in one to four days enabling businesses to move products with agility.

High costs

Air freight rates are exorbitant compared to road and sea freight. 

Cargo security

Stringent airport security measures make air cargo less susceptible to damage and theft.

Limited carrying capacity

Due to size and weight restrictions, oversized packages are challenging to transport via air freight shipping.

Global reach

A wide network of airports enables air freight to reach even the challenging delivery destination.

Weather dependence

Flight cancellation due to bad weather is a serious issue, especially when the delivery deadline is critical.


Wrapping Up

While air freight is poised to make great strides, it comes with a hefty price. Most businesses worldwide still lean on ocean freight if the time constraint is no major concern, leaving only the time-sensitive shipments to air freight. 

In either case, figuring out the best approach begins with choosing a trailblazing freight shipping partner like PACK & SEND. Get in touch with us to make the best decisions for your shipments.

Image Sources: Rossum

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