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Emergency Logistics Glossary

Air freight vs. ocean freight: Advantages and disadvantages

Sea freight or air freight: Which is better?

Whether ocean shipping or air freight is the better choice depends on a range of factors. These include:

  • Desired delivery time
  • Type of goods
  • Size and weight of the goods
  • Variable Budget
  • Urgency
  • Transport route

Therefore, there is no one-size-fits-all answer. Both types of freight offer advantages, which can prove to be the decisive factor in individual cases.

Speed

Shipping goods by air freight involves shorter transport and transit times, making it faster than ocean shipping.

In addition, air transportation is less susceptible to:

  • Transport delays due to unfavorable weather conditions
  • Organizational delays, e.g., due to overloaded or blocked seaports, such as the bridge collapse in the port of Baltimore, USA, in March 2024.

Air freight is therefore the better choice where fast, punctual delivery is a priority. For example, when transporting goods that are temperature-sensitive or that need to be transported from A to B very quickly for other reasons.

Air cargo is also advisable when the goods could be damaged by sea, such as semiconductors and other corrosion-prone goods.

Additionally, world trade via the seas is repeatedly blocked when important transport routes are disrupted (Panama Canal in March 2021, the Red Sea since October 2023).

Flexibility

Another advantage of air freight is the high flexibility of the shipping method.

Shipping requirements cannot always be planned well in advance: if the need for transportation arises at truly short notice, shipping by air in combination with a NFO (Next Flight Out) option that can be booked quickly can be an ideal solution.

When it comes to biological samples, life-saving stem cells or other time-critical goods, the shipment must reach its destination in the shortest possible time.

Dangerous goods

Both air and sea freight are subject to strict regulations for the transportation of dangerous goods.

Generally, stricter rules apply to the transportation of dangerous goods by air freight than for sea freight. The resulting increased safety of air freight can be an advantage when transporting goods that could endanger the lives and health of humans and animals.

Liquid hazardous materials such as chemicals or voluminous, flammable gases, on the other hand, can often be transported better and in larger quantities by sea.

Costs

The costs of air freight and sea freight are market-dependent and therefore subject to fluctuations. Generally, the costs of air freight are higher than those of sea freight. Shipping by air freight is therefore suitable for shipments that are time-critical, urgent, or lifesaving.

For heavy, non-perishable goods and bulk cargo, shipping by sea freight container can prove to be the cheaper alternative.

The most profitable shipping methods are a key factor for companies that want to offer their customers competitive prices. Two main criteria play a role in the cost of shipping:

  • Type, volume, and weight of the cargo to be transported
  • Space available in the means of transport

Air Freight: Calculating Costs Based on Volumetric Weight

If you want to calculate air freight costs, you should first calculate the so-called volumetric weight.

Calculating this value, also known as dimensional weight or cubic meter weight, is particularly relevant for bulky but light goods whose space requirements often exceed the chargeable weight. This actual weight, determined by weighing, is relevant to the maximum load capacity of the chosen means of transport.

Incoterms

When weighing up air freight versus sea freight, it should be noted that four special clauses (FAS, FOB, CFR and CIF) apply to the shipment of goods as sea freight in addition to the regular Incoterms.

The CIF (“Cost Insurance Freight”) clause, for example, obliges sellers in foreign trade transactions to have the shipment insured at their own expense.

The so-called BAF must also be included in the calculation: sea freight is an option that depends on oil prices, which can fluctuate considerably – the Bunker Adjustment Factor (BAF) or bunker surcharge provides compensation. This is levied exclusively on sea freight. This also applies to the ISPS surcharge – a fee levied to cover the costs of security measures for ports and ships.

What about CO2 emissions?

All modes of transport are working on making the international exchange of goods more environmentally friendly in the future.

Shipping is trying to do this, for example, by improving engine efficiency, reducing speed or using sustainable fuels.

Thanks to newly developed alternatives to conventional kerosene, aviation is also reducing its emissions. So-called “Sustainable Aviation Fuels” (SAF) are considered a promising aviation fuel and consist of sustainably cultivated or processed vegetable oils. New “sharkskin” technology, for example, has been reducing the frictional resistance of 4 Lufthansa Cargo freighters since October 2023, thereby reducing fuel consumption.

So-called ULD (“Unit Load Devices”) also contribute to a more sustainable transport. With their compact size and low weight, ULDs help to reduce fuel consumption in aviation.