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Air Freight vs. Ocean Shipping: Which is Right for Your Cargo?

Air and Ocean Shipping Options: The Strategy of Modal Shifts

Air Ocean modal shifts

When it comes to shipping globally, you as a shipper need to make decisions about how you want to transport your goods. Air freight and ocean shipping, the two most popular global forwarding methods, each have their advantages and disadvantages.

Air Freight vs. Ocean Shipping?

Choosing which is right for your cargo requires analysis. For this reason, we’re providing an outline you should use when evaluating whether air freight or ocean shipping is the best option to meet your transportation needs.


Generally speaking, ocean shipping costs less than air freight. But, how is the cost determined? Air freight is billed through chargeable weight, which is a metric calculated by combining the weight and size of the shipment.

On the other hand, ocean shipping is billed by container— a standard container (20 feet by 40 feet) is charged a flat rate. If you’re shipping less-than-container (LCL), you’re billed by cubic meter. In ocean shipping, shipment weight is not usually factored in.

For large, heavy shipments, shipping via ocean is much less expensive than shipping via air. However, for smaller shipments the margin between air and ocean prices gets much smaller. Furthermore, warehousing fees related to ocean shipping can be more expensive than warehousing fees at airports.

Additionally, for both air and ocean shipping, keep in mind that you will have to also pay customs and destination fees.


Air freight is faster than ocean shipping, hands down. While ocean shipments can sometimes take weeks to arrive, air freight can reach their destinations in only a day or two. While ships are getting faster and ocean shipping routes are being constantly optimized, there is still no beating the speed of air freight.


Overall, air freight is more reliable than ocean freight because airlines are better at handling schedule changes than ocean carriers are. While factors like weather conditions can throw off airline schedules, flights tend to be rearranged and rescheduled efficiently. Additionally, keep in mind that there are usually multiple flights each day between major cities, while ships tend to leave weekly.     

When ships are thrown off schedule, they tend to need a few days to get back on top of their operations. However, ongoing alliances between ocean carriers can build reliability and integrity for ocean service, which makes ocean shipping an appealing option—even for time-sensitive freight like perishables, fashion, and auto parts.


More and more, sustainability is becoming a major consideration when it comes to choosing a shipping method. Since carbon dioxide emissions are much higher for airplanes than ships, ocean shipping is the more sustainable global option, even despite the potential for oil spills and the impact on ocean ecosystems.

Should You Use Air Freight or Ocean Shipping?

Typically, the number one reason to choose air service is the speed of delivery. Moving your cargo through the air allows for a truncated time table compared to ocean service. This is particularly useful when shipping items with short shelf lives. However, air service does come with two main drawbacks: higher price and emissions.

While the alliances between ocean carriers produce increased reliability, those same alliances can cause complications. For example, if three ocean carriers work together, one week you may have a vessel from one carrier, and another week you have the same vessel but a different carrier. Each carrier has their own set of rules about what commodities are allowable. So even by shipping the same product on the same vessel every week, if a different carrier is in charge, your product could be denied because the rules have changed.

So, which should you choose? This decision can be made by evaluating when your goods need to arrive at their destination, what your budget is, and how environmentally friendly you want to be. If your shipments have a hard, quickly-approaching arrival deadline and your budget allows, ship via air. If you have more arrival date flexibility, want to save money, or want to improve your sustainability, ship via ocean.

Final Thoughts?

If you’re having trouble making optimal shipping decisions, use a third-party logistics provider (3PL). Be sure to communicate with your provider to ensure clear visibility and expectations. Choose a 3PL that has the maturity for both securing air service and doing the same quality job for ocean service. Work with a provider who has the size and scale across all modes you want to utilize to ensure you aren’t limiting your capabilities or potential savings.

 Learn more about how an experienced 3PL can help your business optimize your global shipping processes, whether you choose to use ocean shipping or air freight.