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If you are in the import-export business, you are probably well aware of the primary modes of transport available to you in your supply chain. Most importers, exporters, or manufacturers have had to debate whether they use shipping via air or sea freight to transport goods from one continent to another.

If you are in the position of deciding how you are going to transport your goods overseas, you should understand the significant differences between the two methods of transport before making a final decision. Employing an experienced freight forwarder with an established network can help with the tangle of choices you have to make in your supply line.

There are a few crucial differences between air or ocean shipment, and to make sure you’re getting the most out of your company’s total cost of transportation, you should fully understand the differences between these two. The factors, in brief, are financial considerations, distance, cargo safety, transit times, and your company’s carbon footprint.

Selection Guidelines

Undeniably, air freight is more expensive than ocean transport, but it also gets your shipment to its destination quicker. The amount you pay to transport your freight dramatically depends on the cargo’s characteristics.

Weight and size matter, but the margin of cost between ocean freight and air freight narrows as your cargo’s weight lessens.

And there are other elements to factor in, such as storage of your goods. Warehouse fees at the docks may be more expensive than storing your newly arrived products at the airport. These extra costs can make a precise determination more complicated.

Ocean Freight

In ocean freight shipping, weight isn’t as much of a deciding factor, so the transportation cost is calculated by container. A standard container is 20 feet by 40 feet and is given a flat rate. If your shipment doesn’t fill up the container, described by the Incoterm® LCL or less-than-container load, you are charged by cubic meter.

A great benefit to transporting goods by ocean carriers is that you can move very bulky and unwieldy shipments like machinery without having to consider the space these items will take up.

Although air freight’s most significant edge in this debate is the fact that generally, it is the faster mode of transport, updates to canals and other connecting waterways and the advent of more modern, faster ships are closing this gap.

Air Freight

If you are shipping time-sensitive cargo or smaller shipments that are not too bulky or heavy, air freight may be the best choice for your supply line. Time-sensitive cargo could include fashion, which may quickly go out of style while en route, perishables, or auto parts.

Air freight uses the metric of chargeable weight – combining the weight and size of the shipment – to calculate the cost of transportation. Goods transported by air also have the benefit of not being handled as frequently as ocean-transported shipments.

Of course, both modes of transport will be subject to customs and licensing fees at the port of their arrival, no matter how they got there.


There are some restrictions on both methods of conveyance. For air freight, the size and weight of the cargo is always a factor.

Another factor is hazardous materials. Depending on what it is, you cannot transport hazardous materials by air, and some of these restrictions seeps over into ocean freight. Ask your freight forwarder for a full list of restricted items.

Carbon Footprint

One of the considerations that is gaining considerable importance is the environmental impact of each mode of conveyance. Companies, now more than ever, are tracking their CO2 emissions.

Air freight and airplanes use a lot of fossil fuels to stay aloft, and so they have a much bigger carbon footprint than ocean freight. However, the potential for ecosystem damage like oil spills decreases the sustainability of ocean freight services.

Coronavirus Considerations

The Coronavirus has only just reached foreign shores outside of China, but the impact on the shipping industry is already being felt. Tacoma and Seattle, two major West Coast ports, have dealt with the effects of the Coronavirus already.

The virus developed so quickly, states Peter Friedmann, executive director of the Agriculture Transportation Coalition based in Washington D.C., that our “interconnected world [wasn’t prepared] to find other sources for food or shower curtains.”

Savvy business owners and freight forwarders are keeping an eye on the status of their shipments as they learn more about the severity and scope of the virus.

Final Thoughts

There are many factors to consider if you’re choosing between shipping your goods by air or by sea, and they include cargo characteristics, schedules, environmental impact, and cost.

When you work with a freight forwarder like Asiana USA, you know you’re getting the benefits of your forwarder’s experience, skills, and network. They will also help advise you as to which transport method is reasonable for your business and understand the mitigating factors, like the coronavirus, of today’s shipping industry. Contact Asiana USA today for a consultation at info@asianausa.com or (323)-250-9386.

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