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UPS Supply Chain Solutions®

Air Freight Shipping Guide

What is Air Freight?

Generally, air freight is one of fastest and most expensive types of freight transportation. Air freight is typically used for time-sensitive goods that are high-value and lightweight. (This can be cost prohibitive for low-value, commodity products or goods that are bulky or heavy.)

What Are the Advantages of Air Freight?

  1. Shorter transit times, than compared to other modes like ocean or ground
  2. Better freight condition on arrival
  3. Greater inventory control
  4. Increased security

How is Air Freight Transported?

Air cargo can be loaded into a variety of unit load devices (ULDs). These ULDs allow cargo to be loaded and unloaded safely and efficiently from aircraft. They also allow multiple smaller shipments to be combined into manageable units within an aircraft. The different air freight dimensions can be found below.

image showing the dimensions of a L9N Container, LD3 container and M1N Pallet

Air cargo freight can be moved in a L9N Container, LD3 Container or a M1N Pallet depending on the size and quantity of the goods in your shipment.

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How Do I Ship Air Freight?

1. Get an Air Freight Quote

Decide which air transportation option is best for your timeline, budget and specific needs. You can calculate and compare air freight rates using the UPS® Forwarding Hub. Visit our freight shipping guide to learn about the different factors that affecting air freight rates.

2. Fill Out Your Forms

Air freight can’t be picked up without proper documentation, so gather and fill out the necessary air freight documents. Learn more about shipping documents.

3. Pack Your Freight

Determine the best packing options and materials to secure and protect your shipment and mitigate damage. You can choose from a variety of air freight packaging materials, such as paper, foam or bubble wrap padding, loose packing, edge boards, corrosion protection and shrink wrapping. If you’re shipment will be palletized, decide if you’ll use plastic or wooden pallets. Depending on the destination, determine if the wooden pallets need to be heat treated.

4. Schedule a Pickup

If you’re scheduling your own pick-up, it’s a good idea to book the pickup several days in advance of your needed pickup date. Determine if you or your recipient will require a liftgate, in the event either of you don’t have a loading dock. Contact the carrier’s local service center. If you’re using UPS, you can schedule your pick up through the UPS Forwarding Hub, where you’ll also receive your cost estimate and tracking number.

5. Transport Your Shipment

Depending on the speed of the air service you selected, your shipment is either transported to a local hub to wait for its departure or it’s directly transported to the airport to be shipped to its destination on the next flight out. If you have a tracking number, you can keep track of your shipment, or if available, be alerted at key milestones or if any exceptions occur.

6. Clearing Customs

When your shipment arrives at its destination air gateway, it is processed for Customs clearance, which can take up to three days. If the shipment clears Customs before 9 a.m. that day, it can be loaded onto a truck to be driven to its final delivery destination. Your shipment only has to clear customs in the country of its final destination. UPS has over 100 years of customs brokerage experience. If you have any questions or would like UPS to broker your cross-border shipments, you can speak with one of our brokerage experts.

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What Are the Types of International Air Freight Shipments?

This is when a freight forwarder combines multiple shipments to optimize cost and transportation efficiency. Some freight forwarders own or lease their own fleet of aircraft and operate dedicated cargo flights. This is a price-favorable option that gives you access to the most available capacity. But time-in-transit may be up to three days or more.

Scheduled air freight is cargo that is booked and placed on airlines for carriage on their regularly scheduled flights. Freight forwarding companies often reserve space with airlines to secure available capacity to support their customers’ demand. If you have regularly-planned air freight traveling on a specific lane, this can be an affordable option with a decent capacity availability.

This is a dedicated aircraft and crew specifically hired to fly your cargo directly from origin to destination. These flights can quickly and safely transport a large volume of goods or oversized cargo, and give you flexibility with departure times. It is also likely the most expensive option, and used when speed-of-delivery is the critical factor.

When Should I Ship My Goods Using Air Freight?

Air freight is great for shipping lightweight and time-sensitive goods. This can include perishable goods such as food and wine as well as goods that need to be temperature-controlled or require special handling, such as pharmaceuticals.

When Shouldn't I Ship My Goods Using Air Freight?

If you need to ship heavier or bulkier manufactured items, air transportation may not be the right answer for you. Ocean freight transportation is better for moving heavier items that are less time-sensitive. You can learn more about ocean freight shipping by reading the Ocean Freight Shipping Guide.

Read the Ocean Guide

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Our all-in-one customer portal lets you get and compare quotes, book, and track shipments all on one modern, easy-to-navigate platform.

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