Today’s supply chain is more complex and crowded than ever before, so choosing the right freight option is critical to success for any business. When shipping internationally, you have the option of either air freight or ocean freight.
Each has its own advantages and disadvantages. Which freight option is best will depend on your business’s unique situation and priorities. Luckily, air and ocean freight each match up to different business needs and priorities, which can be helpful when deciding between the two.
One of the first factors that businesses consider when selecting a freight option is price. Even if you have a significant shipping budget, it’s always good practice to make sure you’re getting the best value possible. Affordability can be a deciding factor when choosing between ocean freight and air freight, though maybe not in the way you might think.
Air freight is generally more expensive than ocean freight but there are cases where air freight may actually be more affordable. Ocean freight is charged per shipping container since surface area is limited on cargo ships. On cargo planes, however, weight is the most limited resource. So, air freight rates are determined by weight, specifically chargeable weight.
Chargeable weight can be calculated by finding the volumetric weight of your shipment and comparing it to the actual weight. Whichever value is greater will be the one you are charged. This means that lighter shipments may actually cost less to ship by air, especially if you don’t need the volume of a full shipping container. However, if you are shipping something heavy or bulky, the pricing model for ocean freight becomes far more affordable.
Large cargo is significantly more expensive to ship by air, making ocean freight the ideal choice. While weight can factor into ocean freight rates, prices are mainly dependent on shipping container sizes. There are a few main container sizes: 20 feet, 40 feet, and 45 feet. Each has its own maximum weight capacity, which is also limited by the physical dimensions of the container.
In general, you pay a flat freight rate for each container, regardless of whether your container is jam packed or completely empty. Different shipping routes and carriers will have varying prices. This pricing model is much more manageable for heavy items or larger shipments. You may even be able to save on ocean freight by using one larger container and doing extra large shipments, rather than multiple smaller shipments.
Unfortunately, ocean freight has become notorious over the past couple of years for being extremely slow due to congestion at ports. In the two biggest ports in the US, Los Angeles and Long Beach in California, wait times have surged at every step of the docking and unloading process. As of late 2021, ships were experiencing wait times of two weeks or more for a berth then waiting an additional week or more just to start unloading.
Even before the supply chain crisis, air freight was faster than ocean freight. The difference is so significant today, though, that if you want a quick delivery time, air freight is the only choice. It may be more expensive, but dramatically faster shipping can be absolutely critical for some businesses.
If you are looking for reliable, secure shipping, air freight is likely your best choice. Airports tend to have stricter security procedures than ocean ports, so your shipment is unlikely to be lost or stolen. So, if you are shipping goods that are especially valuable or sensitive, air freight will be safer than ocean freight.
This is especially true considering that your shipment will spend less time in transit with air freight due to faster shipping times. Environmental hazards are one of the top risks in the supply chain, and ocean freight exposes cargo to far more of these hazards. Saltwater alone can be a serious threat for certain types of cargo.
Additionally, air freight is more reliable than ocean freight, particularly in the midst of the supply chain crisis. Industry experts have pointed out that carriers have been complicating ocean freight over the past couple of years, which has contributed to price hikes and port congestion. Choosing air freight allows you to avoid all of these issues altogether. Even crowded airports do not suffer from delays anywhere remotely close to those experienced at ocean shipping ports.
If sustainability is a priority for your business, opt for ocean freight. Air travel produces significantly more emissions than travel by land or sea. In fact, multiple famous climate activists, such as Greta Thurnberg, have publicly given up flying due to its environmental impact. Ocean freight might take longer, but it does less harm to the atmosphere.
Of course, ocean freight does still have an impact on the environment, but it is less significant than that of air travel and businesses have a bit more control over it. For example, you can reduce the carbon footprint of your ocean freight shipments by using larger shipping containers and shipping items less often. This is similar to carpooling to reduce carbon emissions from car travel.
It is also worth noting that green fuels may improve the sustainability of both air and ocean freight in the years ahead. In fact, commercial test flights are already underway for certain green jet fuels. These fuels can dramatically reduce carbon footprint and may even save money due since they are often sourced from waste, such as leftover cooking oil or even methane produced by livestock.
For sheer convenience, air freight is the way to go. Ocean freight is tied to shorelines and relies on the trucking industry to move goods inland. Considering that both the trucking industry and international ports are suffering from serious delays and strain, air freight has a distinct advantage in this category.
Thousands of airports are scattered throughout the US, making it easy to ship freight to a nearby location. Even if you still need to charter a tractor trailer to move the freight from the airport to a warehouse or other destination, moving it locally will be much easier than a long-distance haul.
Choosing the right freight option is simply a matter of matching up your business’s priorities with the advantages of air or ocean freight. You may find that your priorities are split between the two options. If this is the case, weigh the pros and cons of each option and determine which one will meet the majority of your needs, even if it is not a perfect fit. Air freight and ocean freight are both great options for getting your shipments where they need to go, so choose the option that will give your customers the best experience possible.
Emily Newton is the Editor-in-Chief of Revolutionized. She regularly covers trends in the industrial sector.