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International Forwarding Association Blog » Air freight in Europe » Air Freight Shipping Options: from Cargo Airlines to Onboard Couriers

Air Freight Shipping Options: from Cargo Airlines to Onboard Couriers

If you are shipping air freight, there are different options to look into, including cargo and commercial airlines, onboard couriers, and expedited charters. They vary in terms of cost, risk of late arrival, and speed, and the choice depends on the type of cargo and your specific business objectives.


Cargo Airlines

Many of the major carriers lease or own aircraft so that they can ship cargo. The majority of freight forwarders use cargo aircraft or freighters, but some operators also use passenger flights.

This option can work well for forwarders that regularly ship cargo along a particular route. The main benefits are more capacity and lower shipping rates. Basically, the entire aircraft is a shipping container that can carry a variety of cargo types, including machinery, vehicles, boxes, palletized cargo, and in some cases – animals.


Commercial Airlines

Passenger aircraft is another option for shipping airfreight whereby forwarders reserve space to meet demand. Businesses that ship cargo along a specific route may choose to use this service to get more favorable pricing. There are some risks to take into account, however. Even if you booked ahead of time, items like full caskets, expensive horserace breeds, money, and mail could take priority over other types of cargo. If the airline has to choose between regular cargo and a high-end horse, the latter will likely take priority. Also, passenger airlines tend to overbook flights and may not always stick to their schedule. This can be an issue for time-sensitive items such as cut flowers, pharmaceuticals, perishable seafood products, and fresh fruits and vegetables.


Onboard Couriers

Onboard couriers are typically used for small shipments and documents. Small freight will be checked as luggage on passenger flights, which could be a few pallets or a carry-on bag.

Businesses typically use onboard couriers to ship items such as urgently needed documents, production or spare parts, essential components, and valuables. Because of the urgency factor, you can expect to pay more, including margin, administrative costs, and airfare.


Charter Flights

When shipping time-sensitive cargo, businesses may need to hire a broker to check charter availability for their location. The broker will try to locate a dedicated crew and aircraft based on distance, capacity, and other factors. This is the quickest yet one of the most expensive options to ship cargo. Another issue is availability. In some cases, there are no aircraft with the available flight hours or size that can fly or be repositioned to your location. And even if an aircraft has the capacity to ship from the origin to the final destination, the door may not be large enough to load it. If cargo cannot be dismantled into smaller components, then a different type of aircraft will be needed.

Lastly, while there are a variety of options available, some types of cargo cannot be shipped by air, including batteries, magnets, aerosol sprays, and fire extinguishers. Other items on the list are generators, gearboxes, and infectious and toxic substances.