10 Steps to Success when Shipping Air Cargo

A cost and time-efficient air transport solution begins with giving your provider precise shipment information. Here’s a rundown of the top 10 things to think about before you ship by air, and why:

1. Determine whether your freight is suited for air transport

Your transportation provider will first need to know what you’re shipping, and what your objectives are. This basic information will determine whether air transport is optimal, or even feasible.
Today’s air cargo fleet includes a mix of both legacy and modern types of freighter aircraft, ranging from small planes to wide-body freighter aircraft, such as the Boeing 777F, 747F and Antonov An-124. These large aircraft can offer payloads as high as 264,000 lbs., and over 21,000 cubic feet— a segment of the industry often referred to as “heavy lift.”

Collectively, air transport can provide the fastest speed and the greatest agility in transportation, but there’s always a logical cost-to-value consideration. Air freight transport has a different cost-to-value profile than ocean, rail or ground transportation; consequently, it may not be economically practical in every case. For example, a commodity’s combination of low value plus high density or weight may be impractical, due to the cost of air transport added to the cost basis of the goods. It’s important to convey any budgetary considerations to the provider at outset.

A full-service air transport provider offers its customers the best available solutions and lets them determine what cost-to-value ratio makes sense. Hurtler Air Transport is an experienced provider with access to an extensive air carrier network covering the modes below and more. Each solution has its own benefits:

  • Non-scheduled charter (dedicated aircraft on demand)
  • Scheduled airfreight and on-board courier (scheduled/commercial aircraft)
  • DCS™ dedicated capacity solutions (custom recurring service)

2. Declare dangerous goods, hazardous materials, temperature-sensitive freight and other special handling

Many types of freighter aircraft today can accommodate service options not previously available to shippers, including the ability to ship goods requiring special handling. However, safe transportation of hazardous materials, temperature-controlled and refrigerated containers, or freight with other special handling requires fully disclosed information up front. This includes designating the correct UN (United Nations), NA (North America), and related classification numbers required by the industry to accurately identify the goods.

Understanding if your freight has any special classifications or restrictions — and, if so, what class applies as the proper declaration to the carrier — is your first step toward verifying it’s legal to transport your freight as air cargo. It’s also your responsibility as the shipper to ensure that all dangerous goods (DG), hazmat or other restricted cargo is fully documented, properly marked and labeled to comply with applicable regulations.

Ultimately, the integrity of your freight and the safety of the aircraft and crew depend on the proper procedures being followed by all parties involved. More information on DG can be found at IATA.org, or ask an Hurtler Air Transport specialist for advice.

3. Define your freight accurately, including dimensions and weight

To verify the feasibility of shipping your freight via air transport, a carrier will require highly accurate definitions of the physical cargo, including dimensions and weight. Each aircraft is certified to legally operate to a maximum gross takeoff weight; that number will vary with every trip based on factors beyond the payload, such as ambient temperature, weather conditions, and the altitude of the airport and route. Similarly, each aircraft has a finite volume capacity, as well as other loading restrictions.

Accurate payload dimensions and weight are critical to a carrier’s ability to load and secure your cargo and operate the aircraft both legally and safely. Ground shipping can generally tolerate more inaccurate payload data than air, and especially while performing ground trucking recovery missions, inaccurate dimensions or weight are one of the most common root causes of shipment delays or cancellations. Exact length, width and height dimensions are essential to verify your cargo can fit through the aircraft’s loading door; even a fraction of an inch of inaccuracy can affect whether you’re using the optimal aircraft.

Inaccurate payload data, at a minimum, requires additional verification or load rebuilding, causing costly delays at the airport, or worse — it may mean a cancellation altogether, which could trigger a fee of 100% of the transport cost.

4. Specify origin and destination responsibilities

Ground handling issues are some of the most frequent causes of delays or failures for air cargo transport. As a shipper, you must specify the origin and destination points, and confirm whether or not you need door-to-door, point-to-point or intermodal solutions.

With door-to-door service, your provider will arrange ground transportation to pick up your freight at a designated location for delivery to the airport, and arrange a similar service in reverse at the destination. The actual loading and unloading of freight to an airport or an aircraft are typically, but not always, included in the air transport quote, so always request written verification of this.

Point-to-point service generally means the shipper is responsible for the movement of freight to the origin airport for transfer, and also for accepting freight at the delivery airport. Intermodal options utilize a mix of ground, air or other transport. All of these options are available from full-service providers like Hurtler, tailored to accommodate the route, payload and geography — for example, if the destination is remote, arrangements can be made with local agents to arrange ground services. For global delivery destinations to international locations outside the US, Mexico and Canada, Hurtler has many international resources available.

5. Communicate origin and destination requirements, timelines and the impact of a potential delay

By communicating your “ready time” for freight and delivery timelines, along with the origin and destination requirements, you’ll help your provider make the optimal recommendations. Include any firm “protect times” (urgent deadlines that must be met). For example, if your freight must be moved by air same-day, that will typically require an on-demand charter (an aircraft dedicated exclusively to that shipment). If the delivery window is 24 to 72 hours or longer, that can allow for transport on a scheduled commercial flight, depending on the destination and load.

The overall “criticality” of your shipment is also important. For example, how sensitive is your delivery window and how much harm will a delay do? Scheduled airfreight comes at a lower cost than on-demand charter solutions, but regardless of the mode, no timeline can be fully guaranteed. Ask yourself, “What happens if there’s a delay in delivery?” Weigh the impact against the additional up-front expense of a faster or more controllable solution.

A final consideration is that freight assigned to a scheduled commercial flight generally cannot be recalled from the carrier once it’s handed over for shipping. By contrast, because air charter uses dedicated, ad-hoc aircraft, there’s much more flexibility to change, cancel, reroute or reschedule a shipment.

6. Address all contractual and administrative requirements at booking

Shippers who use air transport only infrequently may overlook administrative matters that must be addressed with the provider prior to booking the load. For example, air charter has a significantly higher cost than ground trucking, and may require that your provider raise your credit limit. Be aware that contracts vary by mode of air transport, the specific nature of the transport and the service provider’s own standards. For example, the current standard of practice for most international and “heavy lift” air carriers is 100% payment in full at booking.

Another often-overlooked factor is that leading providers like Hurtler operate 24/7/365, but most companies’ normal administrative functions, including accounting, finance, insurance and legal, do not. This can present challenges if you’re urgently quoting and booking air transport outside of business hours. Whenever possible, plan your timing accordingly.

7. Know who is involved in your transaction and what they need

Accurate and timely documents are fundamental to successful air transport, such as the BOL/AWB, commercial invoice, packing list,and DG/hazmat certification. If your freight is crossing borders, particularly on international routes between foreign sovereign nations, that will add complexity and customs requirements.

These are some of the parties most often involved in air freight transactions (some may overlap):

  • Shipper and receiver
  • Consignor and consignee
  • Importer and exporter
  • Buyer
  • Broker/agent(s)
  • Carrier(s)
  • Handlers, importers and exporters
  • Customs agents and customs brokers
  • Municipal and regulatory agencies

Each transaction is unique, and each party has specific document requirements before they can perform their respective duties. Any discrepancy or error in the documents, or delay in transmitting them, can result in a shipment disruption or even loss of freight.

It’s paramount to understand what documents are required, when they must be presented, and who is accountable for getting this done. Your provider should be clearly communicating these things to you — and, if you or your agent has a question about documents, convey it immediately and request clarification in writing.

8. Satisfy special requirements for cross-border shipments

For international shipments that cross borders, the shipper/consignor is ultimately responsible for designating a customs broker. In most cases, this is an agent contracted directly by the shipper. The agent must be properly licensed to direct the import side of an international transaction, including all relevant regulatory requirements, Incoterms (international trade rules for buyer and seller responsibilities), etc.

Customs brokers are licensed and empowered by governments to assist importers and exporters and their agents in meeting requirements that govern the cross-border movement of goods. They are responsible for verifying entry procedures, identifying goods and valuations, applying applicable taxes or fees, and enforcing compliance with regulatory documents. Customs brokers also help facilitate customs overtime if needed.

Customs overtime is a public-private process, whereby a country’s customs and border agency may allow commercial parties to request service outside of regular office hours at a special fee. This service is typically used to inspect and approve cross-border cargo to keep the transport moving. It can be a necessity with certain air freight shipments, due to the timing of the flights.

With on-demand charters, aircraft can fly any time of day or night. If the freight is moving from the US to Mexico, for example, it’s often necessary to arrange customs overtime approval in order to process the paperwork necessary for the carrier to proceed with the cargo. With time-critical international shipments like air transport, where more parties are involved, there’s a greater risk of miscommunication, so it’s imperative that all parties and customs brokers understand each other’s responsibilities.

9. Properly build and secure loads for air transport

Once you’ve decided which air freight mode is right for your needs, your load must be presented to the carrier in a manner acceptable for safe transport — properly built and packaged. You should also verify whether it’s stackable, and whether it must be covered if loading or unloading in inclement weather. A load that is acceptable for ground transport does not automatically mean it’s acceptable for air transport.


Cartons must be strong and secure. If a ULD (unit load device) is being used to group and restrain the cargo, is it the correct size, configuration and capacity? If the freight is palletized, the skid or pallet must be in good condition, sufficiently strong to sustain the handling process, and covered if it has loose goods, to mitigate vertical movement.


Cargo must also be presented with a large enough deck footprint (length and width) to spread the weight sufficiently to meet aircraft structural loading limitations. Your provider may need to coordinate shifting the freight to larger pallets or sheets to reduce the load per square foot/meter.


If the freight is oversized or has a heavy lift payload, it will likely need special loading and anchor points to secure it. For example, the Antonov An-124 cargo plane has internal cranes and the Boeing 747F has a nose-loading capability for extra-long cargo. Some specialty cargo may even require custom-built support skids. Give the carrier the opportunity to review your specifications in advance to approve how you intend to build and present your cargo for loading. The final authority for approving or rejecting cargo always rests with the air carrier.

10. Stay available to avoid delays

Your transportation provider should be available to you during every step of the air transport process, and reciprocally you as the customer must ensure that authorized representatives are always available to your provider: from booking, to loading, to flight, to unloading and final proof-of-delivery. Air transport is expedited by nature, and time-sensitive communications are a must. Makes sure you provide phone, email and text contact information for you or your designated point of contact, customs broker/agent (if applicable) and the consignee. This enables your provider to verify documents, provide updates on weather or other delays, and manage the process transparently, especially when issues may arise.

Get expert assistance with Hurtler

Hurtler Air Transport experts can quote, book and dispatch your air cargo in as little as two hours from your request, by accessing a massive network of carrier capacity. The team has over 200 years of collective commercial, military and business aviation expertise, and the ability to provide the optimal air transport solution for each domestic or international need. For more information, visit Hurtler.com.

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