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A Shipper’s Guide to the Air Cargo Shipping Process

Understand the process stages and the responsibilities of the shipper, forwarder, and consignee


What happens after you hand over your goods? Moving them from point A to point B involves various stages. This article presents a high-level summary of the air cargo shipping process, introducing roles and responsibilities, revealing process details, and covers the 3 of the most popular shipping terms.

What Makes This Process Important?


Many problems can occur during the export and import of goods via air transportation. 

Examples include a procedural bottleneck during customs clearance, congestion at an airport cargo terminal, an excessive dwell time (the length of time your in-transit cargo remains stationary), unloading errors caused by under-skilled personnel, inefficient use of air cargo capacity, inadequate forecasting of airline cargo capacity and space allocation, and the challenges of handing dangerous goods and other sensitive or hazardoous items.

The Air Freight Shipping Process, from A to Z


The multiple steps of Air Freight shipping can be summarized into three stages:

  • Export starts at the origin address of the shipper or consignor and involves cargo pick-up and storage in the export warehouse if required, and export documentation.
  • The next stage is called linehaul, a commonly used term for transporting goods by air between origin and destination airports.
  •  The last stage focuses on import formalities including customs clearance and storage, if required, in the import warehouse, followed by delivery or final-mile distribution to the consignee destination address.

What Happens Before Your Cargo Leaves the Ground and When it Lands?


To ensure sufficient air freight capacity, some freight forwarders enter into block space agreements (BSAs) with partner companies. This means they purchase an agreed-upon capacity or space for cargo on the airline or carrier’s flight.

Pickup, Road Transport and Storage

After pick-up from the origin address, your freight forwarder transports your goods to an export warehouse or to an airport warehouse. Here the cargo is screened, weighed, and measured.

Export Formalities and Securing Space

Your freight forwarder books space with the airline. To confirm a booking, your freight forwarder prepares and sends all the required documentation to the airline.

Preparing for the Flight

Your freight forwarder consolidates your cargo into unit load devices (ULDs) – containers that are used to move cargo being shipped as airfreight. There may be some items that are not placed in ULDs; instead, these are scanned for delivery as ‘loose’ cargo.

Ready for Takeoff

The freight forwarder then delivers the ULDs and loose cargo to the airport cargo terminal, and the airline moves it to the aircraft for loading in readiness for take-off.

Checking and Unloading

After the flight and when the aircraft lands, the airline checks and unloads the cargo into the airport cargo terminal. Your freight forwarder picks up the ULDs and loose cargo from this terminal and transports them to an import warehouse. For international shipments this facility is typically under customs bond.

Customs Clearance and Delivery

If your goods are not pre-cleared, your freight forwarder may be able to arrange customs clearance on your behalf. Once the customs authority clears your goods, your freight forwarder delivers or ensures final-mile distribution.

Who Does What? Roles and Responsibilities


Various roles and responsibilities are involved in the air cargo shipping process. 

Shipper/Consignor and Consignee

As the shipper or consignor, you are responsible for actions at the very start (origin address and accepting pick-up) and your consignee is responsible for actions at the very end (accepting delivery/final-mile distribution at the destination address).

In between, the process stages are typically the responsibility of your freight forwarder and the airline.

Working with a Freight Forwarder

Your freight forwarder acts as an agent between you and the airline and, if needed, between you and customs.

When you are ready to ship your goods by air, you complete and send a Shipper’s Letter of Instruction (SLI) to your freight forwarder. This initiates all subsequent actions, the first of which is the freight forwarder arranges with you a pick-up day and time from your origin address.

From that point on, the freight forwarder can handle every aspect of the air cargo shipping process. Ensure you can track and trace your shipment throughout the journey, all the way to confirmation of final delivery.

Clarifying 3 Common Air Freight Shipping Terms


1. How can I Specify Different Service Levels?

There are some key shipping terms to distinguish different service levels. While a freight forwarder’s door-to-door service may be the most adequate for your shipping needs, there are also three alternatives.

Door-to-door (DTD)

Your freight forwarder collects your goods at your or the consignor’s door and delivers them to the consignee’s door.

Door-to-airport (DTA)

The freight forwarder is responsible from origin pick-up to the import warehouse.

Airport-to-door (ATD)

The freight forwarder is responsible from the export warehouse to delivery/final-mile distribution.

Airport-to-airport (ATA)

The freight forwarder is responsible from the export warehouse to the import warehouse.

2. What Do ETD and ETA Mean?

These are acronyms for estimated time of departure (ETD) and estimated time of arrival (ETA).

You might also see actual time of departure (ATD) and actual time of arrival (ATA). Keeping track of the times can be mission-critical for tightly scheduled air cargo shipments.

3. What are Incoterms?

Incoterms are a set of norms used in international trade contracts. Maintained by the International Chamber of Commerce, these terms define which parties incur the costs and at what specific point in the shipping process the costs are incurred. They are often used as abbreviations, such as FOB (free on board) and CIF (cost, insurance, and freight), and can sometimes lead to misunderstandings among business partners. 

To make sure the current Incoterms play in your favor, find out more from our Freight Forwarding Experts.