What Are the Different Types of Air Cargo?

People who are not trying the air freight service very often may have two main assumptions; the first one is that air freight is very expensive, and the second one is that air freight is a simple one type of service from one airport to another for cargo with special handling or short shelf life, such as gold, human tissue, blood samples, … etc. Well, the answer is Yes and NO. Airfreight can be expensive in some cases but in other circumstances, it may even save you money. You can also ship a lot of things by air, even though it is usually needed for FMCG (Fast-Moving Consumer Goods) but we can also find other types of cargo as well.

Air Cargo Services, Shipping Rates, and Charges

Airfreight is not a simple service based on loading the needed items on board of the plane to reach the destination airport. There are two main branches of air freight services.

1. General Cargo:
This type of service is usually less in price than the Special Cargo service. Transit time may be sometimes longer. For cargo to be categorized as “General Cargo”, it shouldn’t have any special needs like temperature control or fast-moving for short shelf life. It also should not be oversized or have odd dimensions (like overlength).

Example of General Cargo: Clothing (in boxes and palletized), Computers and computer parts (no battery included), books, … etc.

2. Special Cargo:

Items that fall under this type of service usually should be handled with care. The air freight invoice for this service is more than the general cargo one. Some airlines are usually skeptical about accepting certain commodities when it comes to special cargo service. Some of the cargo types that fall under the special cargo category are :

Temperature Controlled: This service is for the items that require to be stored under a certain temperature due to the special nature of the cargo. Such as fruits, vegetables, medical kits, .. etc.

Dangerous/Hazardous Cargo: Few categories are falling under hazardous cargo. Some of these categories are flammable, poisonous, radioactive, explosive … etc. These items should be packed properly and loaded in a certain space in the airplane. For this reason, the rates are expected to be higher than the general cargo. Especially in a passenger aircraft.

Live Animals: The service is normally used for pets. Shipping live animals (dogs, cats, turtles, .. etc.) requires a properly ventilated area and they should be placed in a suitable crate that allows their comfortable stay during the flight. The rate will be based on the chargeable weight of the crate (with the pet inside).

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Human Remains/Tissues and Organs:
When moving human remains and tissue (or organs) it always requires special handling and packaging. In many cases, it will require temperature control as well. Therefore, the price when shipping such items is very expensive compared to general cargo.

There are also two main types of cargo air crafts :

Passenger Aircraft (PAX): This aircraft is more commercially used, airlines usually transport passengers with a space in the aircraft for cargo as well. However, the cargo area in an aircraft has priorities for loading; for example, the first priority comes to diplomatic mail, then passengers’ luggage, then courier shipments, and last comes the general cargo. So don’t be surprised if your shipment was offloaded due to a lack of capacity even though you had a booking.

This is why it is recommended in time-sensitive cases to ask for the price of flash or fast service and see if it would be a better option for you.

Cargo Only Aircraft (CAO):
This kind is only carrying cargo. No passengers on board. Therefore, it is more flexible than PAX when it comes to accepting cargo. But it is important to keep in mind that CAO service is more expensive than PAX even when you ship general cargo.

In some countries, like the USA, there is a classification indicating “known” and “unknown” shippers based on their history of exporting. If the shipper is “Unknown”, air shipment is not acceptable on PAX no matter what the description of the cargo is.

What Can Ship on Air Freight

General cargo can be shipped by air with no issues. Even special cargo as classified earlier can be accepted. However, there are items that you can’t ship by passenger aircraft or even by air cargo in general such as illegal goods, fireworks, dry ice (in high quantities), fire extinguishers, … etc.

Interesting facts about Air Freight

  • The first air cargo flight to ever take place was in 1910. It carried 91 Kilograms (200 lbs) of silk from Dayton to Columbus, a distance of around 200 km (125 miles).
  • The largest cargo aircraft around the world is the Antonov AN-225 with a loading capacity of 250,000 kilograms (or 1,100 cubic meters)
  • Hong Kong is the busiest international air cargo airport around the world. It handled 4.8 million tons in 2019 (around 9% of the global average air cargo per annum).
  • The world’s longest flight carrying cargo was 17 hours and 15 minutes from Dubai, UAE to Auckland, New Zealand. While the shortest air freight flight is in the Philippines, it lasts around 32 minutes between Cebu and Bacolod cities.

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Karim Nasser

VP at Globitex with more than 15 years of experience in shipping and transportation in Air, Sea, Land freight, and courier. Now for a couple of years, more into digital freight. I believe in a saying “ in shipping, we deliver hope not only shipments”.