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Air Freight versus International Air Courier – what’s the difference?

Alright, so you’ve got stuff you need to ship overseas, and you’ve heard about “air freight” and “international air courier” but you’re not sure what the difference is.

Air Freight

Air freight shipments are perfect for larger items and objects, where their weight and volume are taken into consideration. The goods can be anything from a single pallet, to multiple tons of cargo  loaded onto aircraft in specially designed containers. Generally, when we talk about air freight, it only becomes cost effect for shipments weighting 100kg or more.

When you think about Air Freight, imagine you’ve got a whole bunch of goods or products you want to import or export. Air freight (often referred to as air cargo – especially in the USA and Asia), is all about sending larger quantities of items stacked on pallets, which in turn can be compacted into air freight containers. Air freight containers are often called an ‘airline unit’ or ‘unit load device’ (ULD) and is a pallet or  container used to house loose freight. Airline units are commonly used to speed up the process of clearing customs, and also restrict the goods from becoming loose and causing a risk whist in transit.

ULD’s are typically:

  • Pallets – normally made of strong aluminum with specially designed rims which lock into the nets which sit over the cargo to secure it. Pallets can be used to ship boxes and cartons, as well as odd-shaped equipment and devices.
  • Containers – These are the typical, odd-shaped containers commonly called ‘cans’ or ‘pods’. These are the containers you might see on the tarmac whilst you’re waiting to board a flight. These ‘cans’ are strong and sturdy, made to withstand a lot of punishment along the way. Typically they are are closed units made out of aluminium, or constructed out of aluminium, polycarbonate sheets, with cargo nets. Due to the shape of an aircraft fuselage (the main body of the aircraft), containers are specially designed to fit into the shape of the fuselage – which is typically a dome-shape. These are designed so that they fit perfectly in the circular cargo hold of the plane. Their design is such that, they will fit snuggly into the cargo hold, although there is still space to move them into position. When in place, they are locked down to prevent any movement whilst the aircraft takes of, in flight and when landing. Containers of this type can also be refrigerated to keep food and perishable items at their optimum temperature for the duration of the journey.

When choosing air freight services, It’s like renting out a portion of a plane’s storage to make sure your goods get to their destination. It might take a bit longer because of all the checks and balances, especially at customs, but it’s ideal if you have large volumes of product to ship, and want to ensure it’s all going together, one consignment, in one piece.

Quick overview of Air Freight

  • Air freight refers to the transportation of goods in bulk by aircraft. These can be scheduled flights on commercial airlines or via dedicated cargo planes.
  • Air freight can accommodate larger shipments, often measured in terms of weight and volume. This can be anything from a single pallet to multiple tons of cargo.
  • Typically, air freight is priced per kilogram and the costs depend on the weight and volume of the shipment. Because of the space and weight limitations of aircraft, dense or voluminous items can be more expensive to ship. Find out more about how the size of the items you’re shipping can affect the final price of air freight. What is volumetric/cubic conversion?
  • Generally, air freight is faster than ocean or ground transport. However, it also includes time for consolidation, waiting for a scheduled flight, customs clearance, and other potential delays.
  • Goods need to be securely packed for air freight, but often not to the same standard as international courier services. There’s usually a balance between protection and weight/volume efficiency.
  • Customs clearance for air freight can be complex. Businesses might require a freight forwarder or customs broker to assist with the paperwork and process.
  • Perfect for transporting larger shipments quickly weighing 100kg or more, items that are perishable, or are classed as a time-sensitive delivery.

International Air Courier

On the other hand, International Air Courier is your express route for smaller items. Maybe you’ve got an urgent document to send, a prototype of a new product you want to show off, or urgent samples for a new line of apparel.

In this case, with international air courier shipping, you’re using services that often promise quicker door-to-door delivery. It’s like giving your packages a VIP pass to skip some of the time-sucking queues that can slow down the delivery of your shipment. Air courier freight services are especially favoured because items travelling by fast air freight methods can speed up the customs clearance process.

International Air Courier Services

  • International air courier services are faster than air freight, and are perfect for delivery of smaller parcels, samples, smaller shipments or documents internationally using a combination of air and road freight.
  • International Air Couriers (DHL, UPS and FedEx) typically handle smaller shipments, often parcels, cartons etc. There’s usually a weight and size limit, beyond which it becomes more economical to use air freight.
  • Prices are typically higher per kilogram compared to bulk air freight but are more inclusive, often covering aspects like door-to-door service, customs clearance, and tracking.
  • Courier services often offer faster, guaranteed delivery times.
    Think of companies like DHL, FedEx, and UPS that provide express services with specific delivery dates.
  • Parcels sent through couriers usually require robust packaging because they might be handled multiple times and need to withstand the stresses of rapid transit.
  • One of the benefits of using an international courier is that they often handle the customs clearance for you, simplifying the process for you.
  • Businesses or individuals that need to send smaller, time-sensitive packages or documents internationally with minimal hassle.

Quick reference air freight or air courier

Which service is best value?

  • International Air Courier service 1-100kg. (DHL, UPS and FedEx).
    Fast door-to-door air shipping services, where customs clearance can be handled by the carrier, saving time and assuring the goods reach their destination quickly. See our import and export guide and our tips on how to import goods into Australia.
  • Air freight 100kg plus.
    Max Height of items which are contained on a pallet for air freight (cargo) is 160 cms.  Max Weight for an aircraft pallet is 4440kg. When sending air cargo, it pays to understand about how freight costs are calculated. Tare weight is the known weight of an empty container.  When the tare weight is subtracted from the gross weight, we end up with the net weight of the total shipment. It’s from here, the air freight cost is calculated.
  • Sea freight 300kg plus.
    Max Height for individual items is approximately 210 cms. This can be subject to change, based on the shipping company and items being shipped.
* Gross weight: is the total weight of an item, or many items, including the product and any wrapping. Essentially, gross weight gives you an accurate view of how heavy the freight is.

*Net weight: is the weight of the product without any packing packaging. Net weight is also the weight of the total number of goods loaded into a container, excluding the weight of the container itself.
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Great International Air Freight Rates

Take advantage of our discounted, multi-carrier international air freight rates.

Global Air Freight. 200+ Destinations

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Fully-insured Air Freight

Comprehensive insurance coverage to protect against loss or damage whilst in transit.

Hassle-Free Customs Clearance

Expert knowledge of customs regulations and compliance to minimise your customs costs and avoid delays.

Customer Service and Support

Customer support teams are available to manage queries to ensure timely delivery of your air freight shipments.

Real-time Tracking & Notifications

Total visibility over every shipment from pickup to delivery. Receive daily updates of delivery status milestones.

Freight Forwarder Capabilities

Become a reseller of One World Courier Air Courier Services. Use our platform and give your customers more international air freight options.

Remember this…

If you’re an Australian business looking to send several pallets of goods to or from an international destination, air freight might be the way to go. Goods are packaged together and are secured in a air container or wrapped onto a pallet and secured with a net. The benefits are that all your goods are in one place, on one aircraft and will arrive at the destination in the same configuration they were loaded onto the aircraft.

On the other hand, if you need to quickly send or arrange some products samples to be shipped from your international manufacturer, international air courier (DHL, UPS, FedEx) would be the best option. Fast delivery time frames are one of the biggest benefits to shipping with international air courier, and is the perfect choice for businesses and startups looking to get their products into the marketplace in the least possible time frame. Some of the caveats with international air courier are the size and weights which can be air lifted. 

Weight and dimension restrictions are in place because for the most part, international air courier may travel in the cargo hold of a commercial airliner. Most international air courier carriers have weight limits per shipment of 70kg. Of course, if you are an international shipper and your single consignment of goods exceed 70kg, our freight management platform can split the shipment into two halves, thereby allowing the shipment to proceed.

For you, as a business owner, keeping costs low is always top of mind, especially when calculating air freight costs, and considering customs charges, duties and taxes (GST), and any other export licences which may be applicable.  As always, working with One World Courier, and being a user of our Freight Management Portal, as your logistics partner, we can help to make sure, air freight and international air courier shipments are always handled with utmost precision and care.