Air Freight 101

Air Freight 101

Air Freight

Air freight can bring your cargo from a factory floor in China, to your warehouse, in a matter of days. However, Air freight is not a viable option for all sorts of cargo.

In this article, you will learn more about Air shipping costs, customs procedures, cargo restrictions and insurance options when importing from China.

  1. Air freight is the fastest mode of transportation

Air freight is superior to Sea freight in many ways. However, the primary reason to get your cargo delivered by air is shorter delivery time.

While Sea freight can take a month from China to Kenya, with a few more days spent on administration and wire transfers – Air freight can get your product from the factory floor, to your warehouse or shop, in only 5 days.

The specific delivery time depends, as there are various classes of Air freight, such as express and economy. Regardless, you will save plenty of time.

An interesting fact is that only 5% of the world’s international transportation, in terms of cargo volume, is delivered by air. However, if we instead look at the total value, that figures jump up to 30% of the world’s total.

  1. Air freight is more expensive than sea freight

Air freight is generally more expensive than sea freight, at least for shipments with a volume larger than 0.5 cbm and weighing over 150 kgs.

In fact, you’d save quite a bit by ordering delivery by sea, rather than air, even when importing small volumes from China.

However, Air freight is all about the time aspect. Time is money, and that extra month you can save on the transit time, can be worth far more than the extra shipping cost.

This is especially true for startups and online business, rushing to get their first batch of products to market.

One thing that many Importers do is to first get a portion, say 10%, of the products delivered by air – while the rest is shipped by sea.

Thereby you can deliver pre-ordered goods and maintain sales for the time it takes for the remaining goods to arrive by sea.

III.      A simple process and easy to track

The process is generally very simple, when compared to other modes of transportation. Everything is highly standardized, and follows procedures that require minimal involvement from the importer.

In addition, Air freight can also be tracked in real time, online. Hence, you can get instant information about the current status and location of the cargo, as long as you have the tracking ID.

  1. Air cargo price calculation when importing from China

All freight transportation modes are governed by weight and cubic measurement factors, whereby the Carrier will charge on Actual Weight or Volumetric, whichever is deemed to be the greater.

The IATA / Airline Cubic Allowance Factor for Air Freight Shipments is

1 Kilo = 6,000 Cubic Centimetres.

The illustration below shows you how to calculate the Volumetric Chargeable Weight as follows:

  • Let’s assume the actual gross weight of this carton is 14 Kilos.
  • The carton measures 30 × 45 × 65cms which is 87750 Cubic Centimetres.
  • Divide this figure by the IATA/Airline Cubic Allowance Factor of 6000 Cubic Centimetres = 14.625 Kilos.
  • In this instance the Air Freight charge will be calculated on 15 Kilos volumetric, rather than the 14 kilos actual weight.
  • Case Study 2 (Actual weight applies)
  • Dimensions: 0.82 x 1.2 x 0.65 m (Equals: 0.6396 cbm)
  • Weight 171 kg
  • Volumetric factor: 200
  • Volumetric weight: 0.6396 cbm x 200 = 127.92 kg
  • Rate: 4.6 USD / kg
  • Result: The actual cargo weight is higher than the volumetric weight and thus the actual weight is applied.
  • Total price: 4.6 USD x 171 kg = 786.6 USD (equals 4.6 USD per kilogram)


Case Study 3 (Volumetric weight applies)

  • Dimensions: 0.82 x 1.2 x 0.65 m (Equals: 0.6396 CBM)
  • Weight 91 kg
  • Volumetric factor: 200
  • Volumetric weight: 0.6396 cbm x 200 = 127.92 kg
  • Rate: 8.5 USD / kg
  • Result: The actual cargo weight (91 kgs) is lower than the volumetric weight (127.92 kg) and thus the volumetric weight is applied
  • Total price: 8.5 USD x 127.92 = 1087.32USD

Volumetric factors

  • < 5000 cm3 per kg = 200 kg per CBM
  • < 6000 cm3 per kg = 167 kg per CBM
  • < 7000 cm3 per kg = 143 kg per CBM
  1.  When Air Freight is a viable shipping option

As previously mentioned, Air freight can be a viable option for high value, high density and low volume cargo.

While it excludes a lot of products that can be imported from China there’s still plenty left for the various Air carriers of the world to handle. I list a few examples below:

Product samples




Plastic products

However, Air freight is only cost efficient up to a certain point and not all high value and high density products are viable to load on an Airplane.

It’s hard to state an exact figure, but assuming that keeping the price down is your first priority we would recommend you to not select Air freight when either the cargo volume is larger than 0.5 cubic meters or when the weight is above 150 kgs.

  1. Shipping process
  2. The cargo is delivered to the airport in China

Buyer action needed: No

Exception: If the incoterm is EXW you shall contact the shipping company yourself to order the pickup at your supplier’s location

  1. The freight company handles the export clearance

Buyer action needed: No

  1. The cargo is loaded on the airplane & flown to the destination airport

Buyer action needed: No

  1. d. The cargo is unloaded at the destination airport

Buyer action needed: No

  1. Customs clearance

Buyer action needed: No

  1. Final delivery to the consignee address & payment of VAT & Custom fees

Buyer action needed: No

Exception: If you have only paid for delivery to the destination airport you’ll have to arrange further transportation by yourself or through the Air freight company.

  • Common questions about air freight

Do I need to book the shipping myself, or can my supplier handle it?

The supplier can normally book the shipment via their local freight forwarder. However, we advise you to book air freight yourself, from a forwarder that is based on your country or market.

This gives you a great deal more transparency over the process and the cost. In addition, you can ensure that the cargo is properly insured.

What is the role of an air freight forwarder?

You normally don’t book freight directly from air cargo carriers like KQ, Emirates Instead; you buy freight from a forwarder, which manages logistics for a large number of customers. In addition to their expertise, you’ll also get access to discounts that they pass on from their large business volumes, with the major carriers. Of course, they keep a bit of that for themselves.

But in the end, you’re likely to save money and time, by using a freight forwarder.

Can I get insurance on air cargo?

Yes, Air freight insurance is highly recommended.

Are there any restrictions that I should be aware of?

Yes. The International Air Transport Association (IATA) has imposed restrictions on cargo containing lithium batteries, such as power banks and other electronic devices.

To comply, the shipper need to pack the products according to IATA regulations, ensure that it is properly labeled and provide the required documentation.




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