Air Freight and Sea Freight: What’s Best for your Cargo?

Air Freight and Sea Freight

As a producer of Unit Load Devices, we get a lot of questions from customers about how to choose between air freight and sea freight. Think the answer is simple? It’s more complex than you’d expect. There are numerous differences between the two transport methods (and not just obvious ones), so when you are trying to decide which is the best way to transport your cargo, you have to consider the type of cargo you’re transporting. Also you have to ask yourself questions about speed, costs, capacity, safety, timeliness and sustainability.

Your answers to the seven questions below will determine whether air or sea freight is best for you and your cargo.

Checklist for choosing reliable and sustainable ULDs

When you decide on choosing to transport your cargo by air freight, you'll be needing ULDs. There are a lot of things to take into consideration here too. Reliablity and sustainability are fast becoming an urgent priority in the air cargo world. We'd like to help you with this free checklist. It will help you take these priorities into consideration when buying or leasing ULDs.

Download the checklist


How much capacity do I need?

There’s no doubt about it. Ships have far more capacity than planes. Compare the largest airplane in the world (the Antonov An-225 Mriya), which can carry up to 250 tons of cargo with the largest ship in the world (the OOCL Hong Kong), which has a capacity of 21,413 TEUs (20 containers).

Since the maximum amount of cargo per TEU is around 21,600 kilograms, a rough calculation tells us that the OOCL Hong Kong can carry up to 462,521 tons of cargo. In other words, the difference in capacity is equivalent to around 40 Eiffel Towers.


How much will it cost and how long will it take?

This is usually the biggest factor when choosing between air and sea. More often than not, air freight is the fastest but most expensive option. If you’re transporting perishables such as fresh fish or cut flowers, speed is of the essence. A few weeks at sea would result in products that have long since passed their sell-by date. It goes without saying that air freight is the obvious choice here. But what if your goods aren’t perishable?

Generally speaking, if the costs of shipping air freight is less than 15-20% of the value of your products, air freight is still the better option. Even though sea freight is the cheapest option, it’s much slower; Depending on the route and available overall distance, transporting goods by ship typically takes between 20-45 days, although some ocean routes can take up to 70 days. On the other hand, air freight  is usually delivered in range of five to ten days.

Calculating the cost differential between air freight and sea freight is a little more tricky because it depends largely on the cargo you’re shipping. The lighter your cargo, the less difference there is in price between the two methods (airplane capacity is typically limited by weight and sea freight capacity by volume). The heavier your cargo, the more cost effective it is to transport by ship.

Sea freight or air freight carbon footprint?

As eco-friendliness gains in popularity, companies are deciding to become more sustainable in their practices. Despite huge strides in technology, air freight still leaves a bigger carbon footprint than ocean freight: CO2 emissions are much higher when transporting cargo by air rather than sea.

A B747 emits roughly 500 grams of CO2 for every kilometre it flies compared to 15 grams of CO2 emitted per kilometre by a modern container vessel. If you’re trying to reduce your company’s carbon footprint and your cargo is heavy, non-perishable and/or non-urgent, sea freight is an attractive alternative.

What’s the most comfortable?

When we talk about cargo, we tend to think about inanimate objects, but of course animals such as racehorses and livestock are also transported every day around the world. Transportation is extremely stressful for many animals, so the faster and more comfortable the journey, the better their condition when they arrive at their destination.

Horse air transport has a distinct advantage over sea freight in these kinds of situations. It offers not only speed but also comfort. Containers like our certified horse stalls, which are designed to fit the lower hold when folded of a freight plane, provide the best level of animal welfare. In addition, offer sleeping and working space for the humans tasked with caring for the animals while in transit.

What’s the best for the cold supply chain?

If your cargo is fragile or temperature-sensitive, you want to make sure it isn’t compromised before it reaches your customer. For you, the quicker the journey and the more insulated your container, the more certainty you have that your cargo arrives in tip-top condition. Both air and sea freight carriers offer customers cool containers. However, air cargo is easier to regulate when it comes to time frames, manpower and accessibility.

What’s best for avoiding delays?

These days, customers expect on time delivery or even the next day delivery. However, what they often don’t realise is that your products have to be delivered to the airport or seaport at the agreed time, otherwise you risk a sizeable fee for detention and demurrage.

Thanks to strict airport regulations the risk of not delivering air freight on time is small, even if cargo misses it’s intended flight, you probably won’t have to wait for more than a day before another plane can take it. That’s not the case with ships. Delays are much more common for sea freight, and sometimes delays can last for weeks.

What’s best for dangerous cargo?

Airport regulations may give you an advantage in terms of timeliness, but they can prevent you from transporting cargo such as gasses, flammable products, toxic or corrosive items, and magnetic substances. If this is the case, sea freight is the best option for you because seaports have fewer safety regulations.

Weighing up all the factors

There are many aspects to consider when choosing between air and sea freight. You need to think about:

  • Capacity: Sea freight has larger containers than air freight
  • Costs: Sea freight is the least expensive option (especially for heavy cargo)
  • Speed: Air freight is the fastest option (vital for perishables and express items)
  • Sustainability: Air freight leaves a bigger carbon footprint
  • Sensitivity: Air freight containers offer better comfort, protection and temperature control.
  • Timelines: Air freight has fewer risks of delay
  • Regulations: Sea freight can transport products that don’t meet airport regulations

By weighing up all these factors, you should be able to decide which is the better option for your cargo, company and customer. If you conclude that air cargo is the way to go, we’d be glad to help with your next decision: which Unit Load Device is best for my cargo? Simply contact one of our specialists.

Ben Lakerveld,
Ben Lakerveld was educated as an Industrial Designer. He joined VRR in 2010 as an Engineer. Over the years he gained sales skills, which finally led to a role as Sales Manager. He’s currently fully responsible for the sales and marketing department, including marketing campaigns. He also looks after some of VRR’s key customers and supports the sales and marketing team whenever needed.

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