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Air Cargo: A Detailed Explanation

sahil bajaj

Sahil Bajaj

Senior Specialist - Marketing @ Shiprocket

March 26, 2024

11 min read

The global logistics landscape is ever-evolving. Air cargo is a transportation mode that bridges the enormous gap or long distances between continents for smooth international trade. The modern economy is ever grateful to this medium of transport for delivering goods across nations, as long distances are no longer a barrier to global trade, with planes flying stuff around for you. According to IATA, Air cargo transports goods worth more than USD 6 trillion, which accounts for approximately 35% of world trade by value.

However, air cargo shipping is more challenging than it sounds. You may encounter a few complexities, like intricate operations and regulatory and logistics challenges. When you assign the shipment to an air carrier, a series of meticulously coordinated processes unfold. It involves many security checks, customs regulations and policies, customs clearances, and strategic logistics planning to ensure the goods reach their destination swiftly and safely.

This article will help demystify the air cargo industry by providing a comprehensive overview of its workings. We will cover the basic concepts of air cargo to the profound details of operational procedures, regulatory oversight, and the environmental considerations it faces.

Air Cargo: A Detailed Guide

Air Cargo: What it Means?

Air cargo is any shipment or items transported or carried via aircraft. It comprises air freight, airmail, and air express. Air carriers may carry the cargo in passenger flights or cargo aircraft. Passenger aircraft put the spare volume in an airplane’s baggage hold (the belly) which is not in use for passenger luggage. This is a usual practice followed by passenger airlines that transport air cargo on scheduled passenger flights. A passenger aircraft may also act as a preighter, in which the complete passenger cabin is temporarily assigned for carrying freight. 

On the other hand, cargo aircraft are air carriers specially designed to carry only cargo. They load the freight on the main deck and in the airplane’s baggage hold or belly to transport it to the destination.

Air Cargo Vs Airfreight

The two terms may sound similar, but the difference in the scope and scale of air transportation draws a line between air cargo and air freight. Air cargo covers the entire ecosystem of air transport of goods, including the carriers, infrastructure, logistics providers, and regulatory frameworks that help move goods smoothly from the origin to the final destination. 

In contrast, air freight is only concerned with the physical transportation of goods by air. It does not involve any other aspects, like carriers, logistics providers, and more, that are a part of the air cargo shipping process.

How Does Air Cargo Shipping Operate?

Air cargo shipping consists of a complex network of airports, cargo planes, ground handling services, and logistics companies. The air cargo shipping process begins with goods reaching an air cargo terminal, followed by a security screening. After the necessary checks, the goods are stored and then loaded onto the aircraft. This complicated process requires coordination among air carriers, ground services, and logistics providers to make the operations error-free and efficient.

Let’s look into the detailed steps that facilitate the air cargo shipping process: 

  • Finalising Booking: The first thing the shipper takes care of is booking the cargo with a preferred airline. The freight forwarder also provides the airline with all the necessary information about the origin, destination, and type of cargo.
  • Managing Paperwork: The freight forwarder or shipper prepares various documents like the bill of lading, commercial invoice, or other necessary certificates or permits involved in air cargo transportation. 
  • Packaging and Labelling Cargo: The shipper packs the cargo and labels it as per the specifications of the respective airline, before shipping.
  • Cargo-Handling: As the cargo has the right labels and packaging on it, it’s ready for transport to the airport. On reaching the airport, the cargo is loaded either onto a specific cargo plane or placed in the cargo hold of a passenger plane for shipping.
  • Transporting Cargo: The aircraft then takes a flight to the destination airport. As soon as the plane lands, the concerned personnel unload the cargo and send it to the receiver’s destination. 
  • Customs Clearance: Once the cargo hits the customs point, the customs duty officials pitch in to inspect and clear the cargo for entry into the destination country. 
  • Delivery of Shipment: Finally, the airline or a local delivery service delivers the shipment to the recipient as it reaches the destination. 

Benefits and Drawbacks of Air Cargo Shipping


Let’s throw some light on some of the benefits of using Air Cargo shipping.

Speed and Efficiency: Air cargo is renowned for its speed, offering the quickest transportation method across long distances. This rapid transit time is crucial for industries relying on just-in-time manufacturing processes, emergency relief efforts needing urgent supply delivery, and businesses dealing in perishable goods or time-sensitive products like pharmaceuticals and fashion. The efficiency of air cargo reduces the reliance on large inventory stocks, allowing companies to operate on leaner supply chains with lower storage costs.

Global Reach: With air cargo, you can spread your wings across many destinations worldwide. It even becomes easy to access some remote and hard-to-reach areas by air. This extensive reach particularly benefits global businesses that need to expand their market presence or source materials from distant locations. 

Safe Transit: The air cargo industry tends to maintain stringent security standards, which minimises the risk of theft, damage, or loss during transit. Businesses or individuals wanting to ship high-value goods especially benefit from the enhanced security measures at airports, like surveillance, restricted access zones, and specialised handling. Owing to the secure environment and speedy delivery, businesses often prefer air cargo shipping for transporting their goods. 


Air Cargo also has a flipside with a few drawbacks attached to it.

Cost: One of the primary drawbacks of air cargo is its cost. The expense associated with air transport is significantly higher than other modes due to fuel consumption, aircraft maintenance, and airport fees. These costs often translate to higher freight charges, making air cargo less economically viable for low-value or high-volume shipments. Businesses must carefully weigh the benefits of quick delivery against the increased logistics costs.

Environmental Concerns: Eco-friendliness and sustainability are a huge concern when businesses opt for air cargo shipping because air transport is one of the most carbon-intensive modes of freight transport. It massively contributes to greenhouse gas emissions and global climate change. For example, the famous singer ‘Taylor Swift’ recently received backlash from the public for taking too many flights in her private jet. This is because it increases her carbon footprint and puts her in a bad light for hampering the environment. So, this trend clearly shows how people are rapidly moving towards an environment-conscious mentality. The environmental impact of air cargo is wildly in talks among both regulators and consumers. It’s nudging the air cargo industry to explore sustainable practices such as investing in more fuel-efficient aircraft, optimising flight routes, and considering alternative fuels to decrease its carbon footprint. 

Size and Weight Restrictions: Another drawback of taking this mode of transport is that an aircraft has finite space and payload capacity. Therefore, it imposes limitations on the size and weight of cargo eligible for transportation. These restrictions are a demerit for industries dealing in bulky or heavy goods, such as machinery or automotive parts. These heavy goods may need more space than allowed within the dimensional and weight constraints of standard air cargo services. It necessitates alternative logistics solutions for oversized shipments, which ends up potentially complicating the supply chain and increasing shipping costs.

Types of Goods Transported as Air Cargo

The versatility of air cargo allows for the transport of diverse goods, each with specific requirements. High-value electronics, for instance, benefit from the speed and security of air transport, mitigating the risk of theft and damage. Pharmaceuticals, especially temperature-sensitive vaccines, rely on air cargo for maintaining cold chain integrity. Air cargo is quite adept at providing the turnaround time that fashion items need due to their seasonality. With air cargo shipping, even perishable food items and flowers get the conducive and temperature-sensitive environment they need for preserving freshness. Additionally, many emergency relief supplies depend on air cargo for quick deployment in crises.

Prohibited Goods in Air Cargo

The safety of air transport is kept as a priority with the strict regulations on items that are eligible for shipping. Risky products like explosives, including fireworks, are generally prohibited from transporting on passenger flights to maintain safety standards. Other than that, airlines also ban compressed gasses, such as aerosols and fire extinguishers, due to their potential for explosion. Air cargo also restricts flammable liquids and solids, toxic substances, and radioactive materials for similar safety concerns. The air cargo shipping regulations necessitate thorough checks and compliance with international guidelines by shippers.

Time Taken For Air Cargo to Reach the Destination

When calculating the usual time taken by cargo to land at its destination, it’s important to assess factors like the route, distance, cargo handling efficiency, and customs procedures. For instance, a direct flight may transport goods across continents overnight but requires additional time for ground handling, security checks, and customs clearance.

The usual time international air shipments may take, on average, to reach their destination is between 1 and 5 days. Despite the number of days it takes, air cargo is a much faster shipping alternative to sea or land transport, especially when you’re dealing with long-distance shipments.

The Authority Overseeing Air Cargo Security

International organisations, like the national aviation security bodies, and the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) overlook air cargo security. These authorities set many extensive security standards and practices, including cargo screening procedures, access control measures, and threat assessments, to safeguard cargo and the shipping process against unlawful activities. All the stakeholders in the air cargo chain must comply with the regulations set by the authorities, which creates a safe environment for transporting goods by air cargo shipping.

Does Air Cargo Need Customs Clearance?

Customs clearance and adherence to regulations are prerequisites for shipping goods internationally by air. It requires customs clearance in both the exporting and importing countries. The importer or exporter must submit necessary documents, pay relevant duties and taxes, and comply with the local regulations regarding importing and exporting goods to complete the shipping process.


Air cargo has an indispensable role in transporting goods globally. It offers a fast and reliable way to fly goods across long distances. The downside to air cargo is its high costs and limited capacity, but that doesn’t stop it from being one of the fastest, most secure, and most efficient ways of transporting goods. The benefits of using air cargo outweigh its drawbacks. 

Businesses and logistics providers must have a clear understanding of the operations, regulations, and security measures involved in air cargo shipping to take full advantage of this mode of transportation. eCommerce businesses can rely on a trustworthy logistics solution provider like CargoX for transporting their goods to different parts of the world via air cargo transportation. They serve more than 100 foreign destinations and fulfill B2B deliveries.

Does the air cargo shipping process require any kind of insurance coverage?

It’s not always mandatory to purchase insurance when you’re shipping goods by air cargo. However, it’s usually a wise choice to secure your cargo as the insurance covers the full value of the goods you’re transporting. It shields your shipment against any loss, damage, or delays that may occur during the transit. It’s best to go through the terms of insurance and pick the one that suits you best in terms of the clauses it covers.

Is it possible to transport livestock using air cargo?

Many airlines offer special services to transport live animals. You may fly pets, livestock, and even exotic animals for zoos or conservation projects. The transfer is generally very safe and regulated because the airlines that offer live animal transportation comply with strict regulations, like the International Air Transport Association (IATA) Live Animals Regulations. These air transport rules and regulations include specific requirements for crates, food, water, ventilation, and considerations for temperature control and handling. However, shippers must do their homework by researching and choosing carriers with experience and a good track record in animal transportation before finalising the booking with them.

How do you calculate the cost of air cargo?

The air cargo shipping process is a complex one and it takes into account several factors for determining the exact cost of shipping. 
1. Weight and volume of the shipment:  Air carriers often charge you based on whichever of the two factors, weight or volume, is greater considering the space the shipment occupies on the aircraft.
2. The kind of goods you want to transport:  For instance, hazardous materials or items requiring special handling often incur higher fees compared to other products. 
3. The destination and the distance to that place: Longer routes generally invite higher costs. 
4. Market demand, fuel prices, and airport fees can impact the air cargo shipping cost. 
5. Also, the varied shipping rates offered by different carriers alter the overall cost you bear. It depends on the level of service you pick, such as standard or express delivery.

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