Logistics professionals need to make critical decisions about their freight every day, including selecting the optimal modes of transport. Sometimes it’s an easy decision, but not always, and it can be especially confusing for newcomers to the industry. Air freight and ocean freight are two of the most common methods of transportation to consider when moving goods throughout your supply chain.
Though there are obvious differences between air and sea transportation, shippers must frequently consider various variables and potential unknowns. This in-depth guide on air and sea freight will help you grasp the pros and cons of each and guide you toward the best decisions for your upcoming shipments.
What to Know About Air Freight
When to Use Air Freight
Air freight involves transporting cargo via airplanes. Although it represents a smaller volume of global freight than sea freight, air freight has distinct benefits. Generally, the choice of transportation mode depends on factors like:
- The type of goods being shipped (e.g., perishable food items, pharma, flowers)
- Delivery speed requirements
- The volume of goods to be transported
- Distance between origin and destination ports
- Facilities and access (e.g., warehousing, yards, transport connectivity)
As a general guideline, air freight is more suitable for transporting smaller volumes and high-value goods, while sea freight makes more sense for bulk shipments.
Cost of Air Freight
Air freight is most suitable when shipping costs are below 15-20% of the value of the goods. For lightweight shipments, use a chargeable weight calculator to determine whether your shipment will be billed based on actual or dimensional weight. While air freight is faster, safer, and more dependable than sea freight, it comes with a higher price tag – a $195 ocean shipment could cost $1,000 by air. Additionally, airlines impose stricter regulations on hazardous materials such as chemical products.
Air Freight Environmental Impact and Emissions
The aviation industry is a rapidly expanding global transportation sector, and like other forms of transport, it contributes to various negative environmental impacts. Some of the risks associated with air transport include:
- Air pollution, primarily from greenhouse gasses
- Incidental water and soil pollution
- Noise pollution
- Waste generation with high amounts of dangerous waste
Under the European Union (EU) Emissions Trading System, all European flights must monitor, report, and verify their emissions. Each airline receives a tradeable allowance covering a specific level of emissions from its annual operations. Air cargo has a larger carbon footprint compared to sea freight.
What to Know About Sea Freight
When to Use Sea Freight
Sea freight is the most prevalent method for transporting goods, especially in international trade. Goods are packed in intermodal containers for transport by cargo carriers. It is a less-expensive option when compared to transporting cargo by cargo planes. As a more cost-effective option compared to air freight, sea freight is better suited for transporting bulk cargo. The handling of large or irregular-shaped loads is are easier when ample space is available, such as in container yards, ship decks, and cargo holds.
Sea freight is generally safer for shipping chemicals, as risks are limited compared to air freight. The slower transportation speeds and controlled environments aboard cargo ships help ensure the secure handling and containment of hazardous materials during transit, further minimizing potential hazards.
Most common types of sea freight are:
- Roll-On Roll-Off (RORO)
- Bulk carriers
- VLCC, LNG, and CNG carriers
RORO services involve large ships designed to transport vehicles in bulk. Vehicles are driven and secured in designated slots within the RORO vessel using ramps. Upon reaching the destination, the vehicles are driven out and stored in respective yards for customer collection.
Bulk carriers transport bulk cargo, such as grains, ores, and cement, stored in the ship’s holds as loose cargo.
Very Large Crude Carriers (VLCC) are vessels specifically engineered to transport liquid cargo like crude oil from oil-producing regions to refineries and storage facilities across the globe. They are frequently used for long-haul voyages from the Middle East to Asia, Europe, or North America. LNG and CNG carriers are similar vessels designed to transport bulk gases such as Liquefied Petroleum Gas (LPG), Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG), or Compressed Natural Gas (CNG).
Cost of Sea Freight
On average, sea freight is considerably more affordable than air. A World Bank study reveals that shipping goods by air can be up to 16 times more expensive than sea freight.2 For the most cost-effective overseas shipping method, sea freight wins.
Sea Freight Environmental Impact and Emissions
The average cargo ship produces 16.14 grams of CO2 per metric ton of goods shipped per kilometer. That same ship also emits an average of 140 million tons of CO2 annually, while bulk carriers emit 440 million tons.1 With this data, it’s easy to see significant potential for reducing the carbon footprint the cargo freight sector leaves behind.
Various technical and operational approaches can help lower carbon footprints, including propulsion efficiency devices, weather routing, slow steaming, and contra-rotating propellers. 2015 emphasized the need to curb pollution as shipping emissions accounted for approximately 13% of the transport sector’s EU greenhouse gas emissions. The EU has since intensified efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions through monitoring, reporting, and verifying CO2 from bulk ships using EU ports, establishing targets, and additional short- and long-term measures.1
Air Freight vs. Sea Freight: Picking the Best One For Your Business
Air freight is faster than ocean freight, reaching its destination in only a day or two. While the logistics surrounding sea freight are constantly being refined and improved, it just can’t compete with air in terms of speed.
Shippers primarily choose air service when speed is of the utmost importance. Air freight allows for shorter timetables than ocean service, which is crucial for items with short shelf lives or time-sensitive chemical shipments. However, the price for faster service is almost always higher than monetary costs that rapidly increase with the weight of the freight.
Ultimately, determining what makes sense for your shipping strategy is up to you in any given situation. Evaluate when your goods must arrive at their destination, your budget, and how each mode will affect your business’s top needs. If you have a stringent, fast-approaching arrival deadline and your budget allows, ship via air. Air freight offers speed, safety, and reliability, making it ideal for transporting perishable goods, time-sensitive deliveries, and even specialized chemical or HAZMAT freight. If you’re more concerned about costs or need to move bulk cargo, sea freight offers a more economical and highly reliable option.
Ensuring Logistics Success
By evaluating the type of goods, speed of delivery, distance, and environmental impact, businesses and consumers can choose the most appropriate method for their shipping needs. As global shipping, particularly chemical logistics, becomes increasingly complex, partnering with a reliable logistics provider like CLX Logistics can help you navigate these challenges and develop tailored solutions for your unique requirements.
Looking to Get Started with Air Freight or Sea Freight Shipping? Contact CLX Today
Contact us to learn how CLX can support your business in handling chemical shipments and other logistics needs.
- Kilgore, Georgette. “Air Freight vs. Sea Freight Carbon Footprint (The Real Numbers in 2023).” 8 Billion Trees. March 28, 2023. https://8billiontrees.com/carbon-offsets-credits/carbon-ecological-footprint-calculators/air-freight-vs-sea-freight-carbon-footprint
- Air Freight: A Market Study with Implications for Landlocked Countries.” World Bank. March 31, 2023. https://www.worldbank.org/en/topic/transport/publication/air-freight-study