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Types of Air Freight Service

In a previous article, we discussed the circumstances under which it may be optimal to choose air freight over ocean freight for your inbound supply of materials or components. But, is all air freight the same? Absolutely not.


There are a few primary types of air freight: expedited charter, on board courier, commercial airline, and cargo airline (freighter). They vary in speed, risk of arriving late, and of course cost. Which one(s) you select depend on your specific business needs at the time.


When selecting an expedited charter, you often hire an air freight broker to locate a plane and crew that is available in the geographic location of your freight, or at least one that can be re-positioned into your area. This is a dedicated aircraft and crew specifically for your needs, so they can fly directly from origin to destination, provided the aircraft has the range.


This is by far the most expensive option. An international charter flight can easily reach five to six figures, depending on aircraft size, distance of the flight, and a number of other details. It can also be the quickest way to obtain your much needed cargo.


One risk of an air charter is not being able to find an adequate aircraft and/or crew in the proper location and with the available flight hours to support your need. An aircraft may be large enough to carry your cargo, but if the door is not large enough for your cargo and your cargo can not be broken down into smaller pieces, then a larger aircraft must be located.


Another risk is that the flight crew runs out of hours prior to arrival at the final destination. I have experienced cases where the freight was not ready for pick-up from the origin as quickly as expected, the flight crew ran out of hours, and the plane had to divert to a closer airport for the night instead of making it all the way to the originally planned destination.


Another risk is Customs-related issues. An air charter is sometimes so fast that the proper documentation has not been prepared, finalized, and filed with US CBP prior to arrival, which can delay the release of the cargo at the destination.

On-Board Courier

An on-board courier checks your freight as luggage on a passenger airline. They must hold a passport from a country that allows them entry into the destination country fairly easy, and they often need to have impeccable speaking skills so that they can easily talk their way through the Customs checkpoint upon entry. This type of air shipment is often reserved for documents or smaller freight that can fit into a carry-on bag, although I have seen several pallets of freight checked as luggage and delivered to their final destination.


Availability of an on board courier option for shipment of your cargo is often only limited to the availability of passenger flights from origin to destination and the availability of a sufficient courier to make it to the origin airport in time to catch the flight.


Pricing for an on board courier is much less expensive than a full-fledged air charter but is more expensive than the other options below. Often, a broker will charge only the cost of the airline ticket plus a fee for administrative costs and margin.

Commercial Airline

Commercial air freight is cargo that is hired to a passenger airline and that is placed into the cargo hold of the passenger airplane. Freight forwarding companies often reserve space with an airline to ensure that they have available capacity to support the demand that they receive.


If you have regularly-planned air freight traveling a specific lane, then this is an excellent option, as you can book this capacity with a high probability of success, and the pricing can be much more favorable since everyone wants a steady stream of revenue with a long-term contract.


Your air freight may be the highest priority on your list, but that does not necessarily ring true for all of your process partners. Many items, such as mail, money, horses, and full caskets can take priority over your freight, even if If was booked in advance. Ultimately, the pilot has to sign off on the log that the weight of the plane is ok, and if he or she has to choose between bumping your freight and bumping a full casket or a prince’s horse, you can probably guess which one will be selected.


Another risk of using this mode of transportation is the right schedule. Passenger airlines are notorious for overbooking flights and inability to adhere to the flight schedule. Having planned transportation schedules for quite some time, I understand their predicament. That being said, many airlines are very strict on the time by which your freight must be delivered to their terminal to make that night’s flight. Sometimes, a few-minute delay in delivery to the airline can cause them to close the doors and bump your freight to the following day.


Many well-known freight forwarders own or lease their own fleet of aircraft for the use of operating dedicated cargo flights. The majority of the world’s top cargo carriers use freighters, although this list includes passenger airlines, too.


If you have a steady flow of air freight across a particular lane, this could be a better option than even a passenger airline. The pricing may be more favorable, and there is potentially more capacity available, too.

Bringing It All Together

If you have read our previous article on some of the considerations to make when choosing air freight over ocean freight and you have read this one, then you may have a need to arrange air freight for your business.


Titanium Consulting, LLC has many years of experience of managing overseas supply for different businesses across many industries, as well as valuable contacts in the air freight forwarding space. Contact us to discuss what we can do to help streamline the decision-making process and to help optimize your inbound supply.

Brad Couvillon, CPIM, CSCP

Lean Six Sigma Black Belt

Founder, Titanium Consulting, LLC