The world has become smaller. Products once considered exotic are now delivered to your doorstep within days — thanks to the wonders of air freight and air shipping.

But what exactly are these terms, and are they different? Let’s understand the world of air freight logistics, meaning, benefits, when you should opt for shipping air freight, and more.

Air freight and air shipping: Understand the difference

Air freight and air shipping are essentially two terms for the same concept: transporting goods by air. While they’re often used interchangeably, it has a minor yet critical difference:

Air Shipping: Refers to all goods transported by air, including luggage on passenger flights, parcels sent through express services, and large shipments in cargo planes.

Air Freight: Refers specifically to the commercial transportation of goods by air, including the costs, logistics, and regulations involved.

In this article, we’ll talk specifically about air freight. We’ll also use the terms air freight, air shipping, and air freight shipping interchangeably in the same context.

What are the most common products shipped by air?

With a market size of more than US $175 billion, the air cargo industry has become a powerhouse for global trade, especially with the rising e-commerce. These industries and products often rely on air freight due to its quick delivery timelines:

  • E-commerce: Facilitates expedited shipping for high-value goods such as electronics, luxury, and high-demand fashion items.
  • Manufacturing: Ships time-sensitive components critical for production lines to enable just-in-time inventory management.
  • Humanitarian aid: Delivering relief supplies to disaster zones, including medicines, food, water, and shelter materials, enabling quick response during emergencies.
  • Aerospace and defence: Supply of avionics, aircraft engines, and military equipment and armaments like missiles and drones, crucial for armed forces.
  • Perishables: Produce, seafood, dairy items, chemical materials, plants, and flowers are quickly transported to the market, reducing spoilage and preserving freshness.
  • Pharmaceutical companies: Transporting temperature-sensitive immunisations worldwide, crucial during health crises like the COVID-19 pandemic.

Compared to other freight transportation modes, air freight is the fastest mode of long-distance shipping, making it crucial for businesses dealing with time-sensitive goods.

Typical journey of your air freight shipment

Air freight, though seemingly straightforward, involves a complex process. From pre-shipment prep to delivery, air cargo undergoes numerous stages, including:

  1. Booking & Planning: Secure the best rate and logistics with a carrier.
  2. Prepping & Packing: Goods get packaged securely and compliant with regulations, along with the necessary shipping documentation.
  3. Collection & Consolidation: Your shipment is picked up and combined with others for efficient transport.
  4. Customs Clearance: Both import and export requirements must be met, including inspections and potential duties.
  5. Air Travel: Your shipment takes flight on a dedicated cargo plane chosen based on size, weight, and urgency.
  6. Arrival & Delivery: Customs clearance at the destination airport precedes final delivery to your desired location.

Typical journey of an air freight shipment

Maersk customs services


Booking, documentation, customs clearance.
Returned goods relief pictogram

Collection and packing

Cargo preparation, handling regulations.


Checking, loading, and security.
Order Received

Clearance and delivery

Arrival procedures, customs checks, final delivery.

What is an air waybill?

When shipping by air, you need an air waybill (AWB) . It is a legally binding document used as a receipt for the goods and outlines the terms and conditions of transportation. It carries all the essential information about the shipment for customs and tracking reference.

You can use this document to track your air shipments via the AWB tracking number.

Advantages and disadvantages of air freight shipping

Flying high: Benefits of shipping air freight

Air shipping shines when speed and efficiency are paramount. Here’s what it offers:

  • Reduced transit time: Compared to ocean freight, air transport delivers faster, often within 24-48 hours for international shipments. This is crucial for time-sensitive items like perishables, pharmaceuticals, and high-value goods.
  • Global reach: Aeroplanes can reach almost anywhere, facilitating global trade. This makes air freight ideal for opening and accessing international markets quickly and efficiently for businesses.
  • Reduced damage risks: Air travel is generally smoother and faster than ocean or road transportation. This leads to a lower risk of damage or spoilage during transit.
  • Improved inventory management: Faster deliveries ensure businesses maintain leaner inventory levels, even counting on just-in-time inventories, thus reducing storage costs and improving cash flow.
  • High security: Strict airport security measures and a dedicated cargo handling process offer protection against theft, tampering, or damage. It also ensures enhanced tracking capabilities, offering greater control and predictability for air cargo.

Flipping the wing: Considerations for air shipments

Speed comes at a premium. Air freight is typically the most expensive transportation mode due to fuel costs, airport fees, and specialised handling. It is not suitable for large, bulky, or heavy shipments and offers limited cargo capacity. Air shipping also has a higher carbon footprint than other modes of transport, raising concerns about sustainability.

Carefully assess your needs and budget before opting for air freight.

When should you choose air freight shipping: Checklist

Air freight offers unmatched speed but comes with a higher price tag. Here’s a checklist to help you decide if it’s the right choice for your shipment:

  1. Urgency of your shipment

    • Time-sensitive shipments: Do you need your goods delivered within days, not weeks or months? Air freight is ideal for perishable items, critical parts, or products tied to specific events.
    • Missed deadlines: Need to catch up on a delayed order? Air freight can save the day, albeit at a cost.
  2. Cargo price considerations

    • High-value goods: If the value of your cargo significantly outweighs the air freight cost, it may be the most cost-effective option. This applies to electronics, jewellery, or pharmaceuticals.
    • Low weight, high value: Lightweight, high-value items like gemstones or artwork benefit from air freight’s security and speed.
  3. Specialised freight needs

    • Perishable goods: Fresh produce, medical supplies, and live animals require fast delivery to maintain quality and viability. Air freight is often the only viable option.
    • Fragile items: Delicate instruments, artwork, and electronics benefit from air shipping’s shorter transit times and reduced risk of damage.
  4. Limited options or remote locations

    • Limited land or sea access: For destinations lacking efficient land or sea routes (e.g., islands), air freight provides the only viable option for fast delivery.
    • Urgent access to remote areas: Need to ship to remote locations where other modes are impractical or slow? Air shipping offers direct connections to otherwise challenging destinations.
  5. Other factors

    • Security concerns: For high-risk cargo or sensitive shipments, air shipping’s enhanced security measures offer greater control and feasibility.
    • Reputational impact: Meeting tight deadlines and ensuring product freshness can enhance your brand image and customer satisfaction.
    • Cost-sensitive shipments: If your goods have a low value and transportation cost is a key concern, consider slower but cheaper options like sea freight.
    • Bulky or heavy goods: Air freight charges are based on weight and volume. Large or heavy items might be more economical via land or sea.

Remember, this is a general checklist. Consult with your carrier or logistics service provider to assess your needs and get customised advice on the most efficient shipping option.

Fly your cargo with Maersk Air Freight

So, the next time you receive a package delivered by air, remember the intricate journey it took to reach you — a testament to the power of air freight in today’s globalised world, connecting businesses and consumers across continents.

At Maersk, we understand your need for speed and efficiency when shipping. That’s why we offer: an airline network, expedited deliveries, cost-effective solutions, and customised shipping solutions. Get in touch with our Maersk Air Freight experts to explore the options.