Air Cargo Basics

Air Cargo Overview

Air transportation is used to transport air cargo by plane and is a crucial component of international logistics networks.  Air cargo is especially useful for companies shipping time-sensitive goods or goods over large distances. Air cargo is usually transported using dedicated cargo aircraft (freighters) or passenger aircraft.

The Importance of Air Cargo

Plane is often the fastest way to transport goods, especially in an international context. Although perhaps more costly, it is more cost-effective for light and high-value items (e.g., live animals, medications, high-fashion apparel). To illustrate this fact, Air Cargo – How It Works states, “Air cargo represents less than 0.5 percent of the weight of all international cargo, while at the same time this segment represents around 30 percent of the total worldwide shipment value.”

Modes of Transportation

As mentioned above, air cargo is transported by freighters or passenger aircraft. Freighters make up about 60% of global air cargo traffic. However, cargo capacity in passenger planes is increasing, as airlines are adding to their fleet newer jetliners with larger cargo capacity (Boeing).

If passenger aircraft is used, the cargo can be placed in the hold or transported by an on-board courier (OBC). The cargo hold of a plane is usually in the “belly” of the plane, underneath the passengers. An on-board courier is someone who is flying as a passenger and takes the cargo as a carry-on. As an expensive service, this is typically used for very urgent or valuable small goods. Some examples of cargo-carrying passenger planes are the Airbus A320, Boeing 737 NG, and the Airbus A380 (Air Cargo – How it works). Since passenger aircraft do not want to focus on ground operations, usually indirect carriers (“forwarders”) handle the pickup and delivery of packages. Some forwarders also have their own aircraft (Princeton).

For dedicated cargo aircraft, also called freighters, the cargo can be fit into the main deck in addition to the belly. These carriers generally fly at night. Some examples of freighter aircraft are the Boeing 767-300F, Airbus A330-200F, and the Fokker F27 (Air Cargo – How it works).


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