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Ocean Freight vs. Air Freight: The Major Differences

Ocean Freight vs. Air Freight: The Major Differences

COVID-19 and the Ukraine War are having a huge impact on global trade. As a result, shipping costs have soared, and delays have become the norm. According to supply chain expert project44:

“Delays are likely to continue well into 2022 as COVID breakouts continue throughout supply chains and consumers continue to buy at a healthy rate.”

The import-export sector is keenly aware of the primary modes of transport of goods available and their attendant challenges these days. However, other business sectors that depend on chain supply have many questions. This article aims to clarify the differences between two of the key modes of cargo transportation: sea and air.

The Difference Between “Cargo” and “Freight”

First, we need to ensure we are on the same page when talking about the transportation of goods.  Today, the terms “cargo” and “freight” are often used interchangeably, leading to misunderstanding.Freight vs Cargo

We will use traditional meanings for this article. For example, an aircraft that transports goods is not called a freight plane; it is a cargo plane. Likewise, ocean-going vessels are cargo ships, not freight ships. Also, mail is never referred to as freight, no matter how it is transported.  

Conversely, trains carrying goods are called freight trains, while long-haul trucks loaded with products are called freight trucks.

So, in summary, cargo is commercial goods shipped by ship or plane, and mail is always cargo. Freight is goods transported overland via trucks or trains.

And here is where it gets confusing. Industrial sourcing platform and marketing powerhouse, Thomas defines “freight” like this:

“Freight can denote many things. It may mean the product, merchandise, the amount payable, or the money charged. Cargo being transported may be referred to as freight if referring to both the goods and the money charged for their transport.” 

Ocean Freight vs. Air Freight During COVID-19

The pandemic has challenged our world in uncountable ways. One of the most apparent issues is how business owners and managers obtain the goods people need for everyday living. Importers and exporters face rate fluctuations, limited capacity, and long delays. So, how do you choose which mode of transportation for your next freight shipment?

Typically, the choice between ocean and air depends on your shipment’s size, weight, and contents—and on how fast you need it. Here are some general things to note:

  1. Shipping by air usually is the best mode of transportation for small shipments—even though it will probably be more expensive. However, your goods will arrive in a matter of days instead of weeks when traveling by sea. Air is usually the best option for retail and electronics products, where fast turnover is vital.
  2. Currently, both ocean and air freight prices are higher than usual. However, to help mitigate some of the cost, many airlines place cargo onto passenger planes.
  3. Ocean freight is commonly less expensive than air freight, and this holds even in times of a pandemic. Most large shipments travel by sea. Indeed, if you can afford the time, shipping by sea is a great option for any type of goods as it is the cheapest option.

There are some websites that will help you determine the cost difference between shipping your goods by air or by sea. One such site is Freightos.com.

Transit Times

Ocean vs. air freight transit times are becoming more competitive. 

Small ocean shipments that do not completely fill a container are called LCLs (“Less than Container Load”). Until recently, LCLs took much longer to ship than full containers (called  “Full Container Loads” or “FCLs”). However, ocean LCL services now compete with air freight transit time, and they are substantially cheaper. This is because:

  • Ships are getting faster
  • Canal upgrades are causing fewer delays
  • Ocean tracking has improved
  • The freight market has become more competitive

Freight booking platform, Freighto, states:

Some forwarders are now providing express ocean services, sometimes called Expedited LCL, with guaranteed delivery days, actually faster than FCL, and close to matching air transit times. Most air cargo is typically consolidated, but it takes time to put together, and dedicated services are typically once or twice a week. So, transit times are usually 5-7 days. Compare this with some express LCL shipments. For instance, Europe to the East Coast can take as little as 8 days – but it’s important to note that with current conditions, this can be much longer.”

Air Freight Restrictions

When considering air transit, it is essential to know there are many airline regulations and restrictions, and they can vary from country to country. Banned items include:

  • Biological products and waste (e.g., medical waste or dangerous pathogens)
  • Explosives of any kind (e.g., fireworks, detonating fuses)
  • Flammables (both solids and liquids)
  • Gases (e.g., compressed gas, dry ice, fire extinguishers, gas lighters, aerosol cans)
  • Items that could be dangerous to the public
  • Toxic and infectious items (e.g., pesticides)

Air Fright Restrictions

Carbon Footprint

Good businesses take responsibility for their impact on our environment. And in this day and age, not having green credentials equates to a loss of business. 

So, which mode of transit leaves the smallest carbon footprint?

The answer is ocean freight. Its CO2 emissions are a fraction of those of air freight. So, factor this into your decision if possible.

Ocean vs. Air Freight: A Summary

Ocean Freight

  • Has a larger capacity and value
  • Much slower transit times
  • Custom issues and port holdups can be a problem
  • Express LCL is increasingly more available, which offers a delivery date and faster travel times
  • Has a much better carbon footprint

Air Freight

  • Is best used when the shipping cost is less than 15 to 20 percent of the value of the goods
  • Faster, safer, and more reliable
  • More expensive (e.g., a $195 ocean shipment will cost approximately $1,000 by air)
  • Stricter hazardous material regulations.

In Closing

Versa Technology, Inc. delivers last-mile networking solutions to a global community of IT professionals in North America, South America, China, Europe, Australia, Southeast Asia, Africa, and more. Chain supply and proper product transit are concerns of ours. Our goal is to provide our products in the timeliest manner possible in these difficult times. Check out our website. We want to help you.