Understanding The Difference Between Air Freight And Air Cargo 

We live in a fast-paced world demanding expedient, reliable, and secure shipping options. Be it for businesses or individual needs. The logistics sector is continually evolving to accommodate the dynamic requirements of various stakeholders. However, when it comes to air shipping, two terms often create confusion—air freight and air cargo.

The ambiguity surrounding these terms can lead to inefficiencies and suboptimal choices. This article aims to elaborate the differences between air freight and air cargo, offering invaluable insights for making informed decisions.

What Is Air Freight?

Air freight refers to the specialised process of transporting goods via air, typically on dedicated cargo plane or-specific aeroplanes. Unlike regular air cargo, air freight services are designed to prioritise speed, security, and efficiency.

Features Of Air Freight

  1. Time-Sensitive: One of the most significant advantages of air freight shipment is its rapid delivery time. This service is ideal when there is an essential need to move goods swiftly across great distances.
  2. Priority on Speed and Efficiency: Air freight services go beyond just rapid transport. From the moment a shipment is booked to when it arrives at its destination, every step is meticulously planned to ensure maximum speed and efficiency.
  3. Third-Party Logistics Provider: Air freight often involves using a third-party logistics provider, a freight forwarder. These freight forwarders manage the complexities of air freight, ensuring that goods are delivered as efficiently as possible.

Air Freight Costs

Air freight cost comes with a premium price tag. This elevated cost results from the speedy delivery times, increased freight charges, security measures, and specialised care that air freight services offer.

Ideal Use-Cases

  1. Urgent Shipping of Valuable Items: If you’re looking to transport valuable goods like artwork, antiques, or expensive equipment, air freight shipment ensures the quick and secure delivery of these items.
  2. Transport of Perishable Luxury Goods: For goods that have a short shelf life, such as luxury food items or pharmaceuticals, air freight is an indispensable choice.
  3. Sending Confidential Documents: Air freight’s enhanced security measures offer a reliable option when transferring highly sensitive documents.
  4. Shipping Large Size Items: While many may assume that ocean or ground transportation is best suited for big items, air freight often provides solutions for transporting oversized or non-standard cargo. In such cases, custom aircraft or specialised configurations may be used to accommodate the unique needs of the shipment. This could include items like heavy machinery, large sculptures, or specialised equipment.

What Is Air Cargo?

Air cargo is a broader term that refers to goods shipped on a commercial passenger flight, sharing space with passenger luggage. While the primary function of the plane on these flights is to transport passengers, the unused cargo hold area is utilised for shipping various goods.

Features Of Air Cargo

  1. More Flexible in Terms of Timing: Air cargo offers flexibility regarding shipping schedules. Unlike specialised air freight services, which may have a more rigid timetable, air cargo can take advantage of the frequent commercial flights between cities and countries. This means you can often find a flight that matches your timing requirements more closely.
  2. Lower Priority Compared to Air Freight: Air cargo is generally considered a lower priority than air freight. Freight forwarders will prefer air freight shipments, especially time-sensitive ones, over cargo shipments on commercial flights. This lower prioritisation could lead to longer wait times for cargo shipments to be loaded and unloaded.
  3. Shares Space with Passenger Luggage: One of the most distinguishing features between air cargo and air freight is that air cargo shares its space with passenger luggage. The space allocation for cargo is contingent upon the luggage volume on the flight. Therefore, there are limitations on the volume and weight of the shipment that can be accommodated.

Air Cargo Costs

  • Economical Compared to Air Freight: When it comes to costs, air cargo is generally more economical than dedicated air freight services. The overhead for running a commercial flight is primarily absorbed by the passenger ticket sales, allowing cargo to be transported at a lower cost.
  • Price Considerations: However, it’s essential to factor in various costs when choosing between cargo and air freight. Air cargo, being of lower priority, might not be the fastest mode of air shipping. 

Ideal Use-Cases For Air Cargo

  1. Bulk Shipments: Air cargo shipment is well-suited for bulk shipments that do not require immediate delivery. Since commercial flights have a significant amount of space allocated for luggage and cargo, it becomes a cost-effective option for shipping larger volumes.
  2. Non-Urgent Items: If your shipment is not time-sensitive, air cargo offers a reasonable alternative. Given its lower priority in the air courier hierarchy, it’s best used for items that have a flexible delivery window.
  3. Lower-Value or Less Sensitive Commodities: If you are shipping items that are not particularly valuable or sensitive, air cargo is an excellent option. The service provides a secure enough environment for the safe transport of goods. Still, it lacks the specialised handling and quicker delivery times that air freight services offer.

Key Differences Between Air Freight Vs. Air Cargo

Now that we have a clear overview of what these services are, let’s try a quick comparison of the two. Taking these differences into consideration will make it easier for you to choose which service you need.

Turnaround Time

In air transport shipping, the term “air freight” often refers to expedited shipping services prioritising speed and efficiency. Air freight services usually boast short transit times, typically 1-5 days, depending on the destination.

On the other hand, air cargo shipment may include less time-sensitive shipments and could thus afford longer transit times. When transit time really is of the essence, air freight generally takes the cake.

Security Measures

Both air cargo and air freight follow stringent security protocols, given the sensitive nature of aviation transport. However, the heightened focus on speed in air freight sometimes necessitates additional layers of security checks to ensure that the fast pace doesn’t compromise the shipment’s safety.

Conversely, air cargo may have more time to conduct thorough inspections, but that is not to say it is less secure—just differently.

Cost Effectiveness

For those looking for the most cost-effective solutions, air cargo usually provides a more economical route, especially for larger, bulk shipments that do not require immediate delivery. Air freight services are more expensive given their expedited nature and added security measures.

Thus, the choice between cargo and air freight hinges largely on cargo space, your budget and how quickly you need the goods transported.


Air freight services are generally more flexible regarding last-minute bookings, schedule changes, and special handling requirements. If cargo needs to be expedited urgently, freight forwarders specialising in air freight can usually accommodate these needs.

In contrast, air cargo schedules may be less amenable to sudden changes or specific handling instructions due to their more systematic and bulk-oriented operations.


Regarding accessibility, air cargo usually requires you to work through freight forwarders who manage carrier space allocation. Air freight, on the other hand, can often be booked directly, providing a more accessible route for those who wish to manage their shipments.

However, it’s worth noting that many freight forwarders also offer comprehensive air and sea freight solutions for those who prefer the best of both worlds.


The air cargo tariff is a standardised pricing structure that outlines the costs of shipping goods via air. This document will usually break down the costs by weight, volume, and type of shipped goods. It is a useful tool for planning and budgeting, especially for larger shipments that utilise air cargo services.

Understanding the international air freight and cargo tariff will also allow you to better compare the financial implications of opting for air cargo versus air freight.

Conclusion On The Difference Between Air Freight And Air Cargo

While air cargo and air freight fall under the broader category of air shipping, they serve distinct needs in terms of turnaround time, security measures, cost-effectiveness, flexibility, and accessibility. The choice between the two ultimately depends on your specific requirements and how they align with these key variables.

For those interested in diving deeper into the intricacies of air shipping, it is advisable to consult aviation consultants. Singapore Air Charter offers bespoke solutions and consultations that can be tailored to meet your unique shipping needs. Contact us today!

Frequently Asked Questions About Air Freight Vs Air Cargo

Can I Ship Perishable Goods Via Air Cargo?

Yes, you can, but you may require special arrangements for international shipping, and it could be more cost-effective to use air freight for highly perishable items.

What Are The Security Protocols For Air Freight?

Air freight follows stringent security measures, including screening and tracking, to ensure the safety and integrity of your shipment. Other security protocols for air freight include:

  • Known Shipper Programme: In many countries, only cargo from “known shippers” is allowed on passenger aircraft. Known shippers are companies that have been vetted and approved by aviation authorities. 
  • Chain of Custody: From the point of origin to its final destination, the cargo is tracked to ensure it hasn’t been tampered with. This includes seals, locks, and tamper-evident packaging.
  • Restricted Access: Only authorised personnel are allowed in cargo handling and storage areas. This minimises the risk of tampering or theft.
  • Advanced Cargo Information: Many countries require carriers to provide detailed information about cargo shipments before they arrive. This allows customs and security agencies to assess risks in advance.

Other security measures may be in place, depending on the arrangements with the freight forwarder.

Is Air Cargo Tariff Applicable To Air Freight As Well?

Air freight typically has its own pricing structure, separate from the standard air cargo tariff, owing to its expedited nature and added services.

What Goods Are Generally Not Allowed In Air Freight Or Air Cargo?

Items such as explosives, flammable liquids, and other hazardous materials are generally prohibited in air freight and air cargo.

How Do I Track My Shipment, Whether Air Freight Or Air Cargo?

Most providers offer tracking options, often online, that allow you to monitor your shipment’s status in real time.

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