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Air cargo - an overview

The air transport mode is the best solution if you want to send a shipment door-to-door and over a medium to long distance fast.

Small and valuable goods

Small and valuable goods can be transported in the passenger cabin as a so called “hand-carry service” by an “on-board courier” (OBC) who is flying as a passenger. The OBC normally is an employee working for a forwarder or courier service. These service providers can also take care of the total door-to-door transport, all eventual customs formalities for export or import, as well as the hand-over at destination.

This type of service is mainly used for very urgent or valuable documents and small goods. As with all cargo services, the entry requirements and customs regulations of the country of import, as well as the regulations for restricted articles on board of the aircraft must be known and taken care of.

Belly cargo and regular cargo aircrafts

Different types of aircraft can be used to transport regular cargo. It can be loaded in a passenger aircraft in the cargo area below the passengers, the so-called “belly”, or on the main-deck of aircrafts or freighters. The cargo can be loaded through the nose of the aircraft or by side loading, through a large cargo door. Examples for cargo aircraft: Antonov AN-124 Ruslan, Boeing 767-300F, Boeing 747-400ERF, Boeing 777F, Airbus A330-200F or Fokker F27.

The dimensions of aircrafts vary, which of course also influences the amount of passengers and/or cargo that can be taken. The amount and weight of cargo that can be carried depends a.o. on the fuselage dimensions (esp. the diameter) of the aircraft. For the bigger aircraft or airliners a difference is made between narrow body and wide body aircraft.

The global air cargo market

Air cargo represents less than half a percent of all international cargo, while at the same time this segment represents around 30 percent of the total worldwide shipment value. Cargo-only aircraft or freighters handle about 60 percent of global airfreight shipments, 40 percent are transported in the cargo section of passenger planes.

Looking at the core business, the international air cargo market can be divided in four major supplier categories: Postal companies using Airmail, International Courier companies (Couriers), International Express companies (Integrators) and Forwarders. The actual air transport (or: airport-to-airport) part is actually outsourced by these companies to an air operator (Cargo Service Agency – CSA) or airline. Except in case of the Integrators, that operate an in-house aircraft fleet and outsource only partially.

Air cargo supply chains

The regular airlines have the biggest share of the world wide air transport market for cargo. The air cargo forwarders are the ‘traditional’ and still most important customers for the airlines. According to FIATA, forwarders contract, book and process over 80 per cent of international air cargo consignments. They compile the complete and (where necessary) customized door-to-door (D2D) air cargo supply chains for their customers, which are often called end-customers by the airlines. The airlines deliver the airport-to-airport (A2A) transport in this chain.


It is relatively expensive to transport cargo by air, but also the fastest way of transport possible to cover medium to long distances. Therefore typical air cargo consists of goods with a high value and/or an operationally or commercially critical delivery time (high financial breakdown risk): express parcels, airmail, perishables, pharmaceuticals, valuables, luxury consumer goods, technical supplies.

July 1, 2015