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A Shipper’s Guide to Air Cargo Types

Learn How to Differentiate and Ship General Cargo and Special Cargo by Air


The first-ever commercial cargo flight took to the skies in 1910, a Wright Model B aircraft transporting 200 lbs (90 kg) of silk across Ohio, USA. Today the International Air Transport Association (IATA) calculates more than 65.6 million cargo tons of goods are transported by air each year, equivalent to $18.6 billion worth of items per day. Some of them actually require specific precautions in order to be shipped by Air; let’s find out which ones!

When Air Freight Is the Best Option for Your Goods


When Transit Time Is Key

Shippers usually opt for air transportation if their cargo requires shorter transit times or if it has high value. Air transportation offers secure and fast transit times compared to other major forms of transportation like ocean, road or rail.

Typical examples of these goods include time-critical medicines and valuable items of technology. Air freight can also be the preferred mode of transportation for perishables that are time sensitive. Examples include soft fruits, freshly caught fish, and cut flowers. As you can imagine, some of these items require temperature-controlled shipment end to end.

Two Distinct Goods Categories for Air: General Cargo and Special Cargo


General Cargo

Items of general cargo for air transportation needs generic precautions, preparations, handling. Some examples of general cargo are dry goods, hardware, textiles, and other retail and consumer goods excluding mobile phones, laptops, and tablets. 

Special Cargo

Items of special cargo have specific needs during air transportation – they may need special packaging, labelling, documentation, and handling, for example. And anyone responsible for moving special cargo may have to comply with goods-specific regulations. Examples of special cargo include dangerous goods, products that are sensitive to time and temperature, and perishable cargo.

Who Decides the Regulations?

To manage globally harmonized standards and provide guidance on the transportation of special cargo, IATA has three boards: the Dangerous Goods Board, Live Animals and Perishables Board, and Time and Temperature Working Group. IATA regularly publishes manuals on the regulations, standards, and best practices in air transportation.

Are My Goods Considered Special Cargo?


We list the most common Special Cargo sub-categories and give our best advice to ship them securely and show you where you can find useful, official regulation information.

AOG/Emergency Goods

Any aircraft-on-ground (AOG) incident means that there’s a serious problem preventing an aircraft from flying. Perhaps a replacement part is needed before the aircraft can be cleared for take-off, in which case this part is referred to as an AOG or emergency item. It’s a very time-sensitive shipment.

Our Expertise

If you are shipping AOG or emergency goods by air, you will try to get this special cargo on the next flight out or you may charter an aircraft.

Dangerous Goods

Also known as hazmat (an abbreviation for hazardous materials), dangerous goods are articles or substances capable of posing risk to health, safety, or property when transported. Examples include explosives, poisonous or infectious substances, and radioactive material. These goods are classified by the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) and IATA, and they are coded with a UN number.

Specific Precautions to Ship Dangerous Goods by Air

Special packaging will probably be required along with additional documentation, such as a Dangerous Goods Declaration which specifies the type of aircraft on which the goods can be transported (a cargo-only aircraft or one that can also transport passengers). A training will be mandatory to handle your dangerous goods. Here again, IATA publishes the latest regulation information.

Odd Dimensional Cargo

This sub-category of special cargo refers to shipments with dimensions that do not fit into a standard unit load device (ULD) – the container that’s used to move cargo being shipped as airfreight – and to shipments of unusually heavy weight.

Specific Precautions to Ship Odd Dimensional Goods by Air

If you are shipping odd dimensional goods by air, special packaging is likely to be required. For example, if shipping an engine, you may need to also include a suitable engine stand. 

Our Expertise

Odd dimensional cargo is typically handled by specialist freight forwarder divisions such as the DHL Global Forwarding Industrial Projects team.

Perishable Goods

Perishables are commodities such as fresh meats, fish, fruits, vegetables, seeds, and flowers. The preferred means of shipping is air because of a shorter travel time and the opportunity to control the temperature. Typically, these goods are sent as direct shipments.

Specific Precautions to Ship Temperature-Controlled Goods by Air

If you are shipping perishable goods by air, special packaging, marking, labeling and numerous documents are required. If the goods are sensitive to heat or cold, you may need to treat them as temperature-controlled cargo. Read IATA’s regulations on perishable cargo to find out more.

Temperature-Controlled Goods

This sub-category of special cargo includes any items that must be kept within certain temperature ranges – for example 2-8⁰C (35.6-46.4⁰F) or 15-25⁰C (59-77⁰F) – or below zero (32⁰F). Examples include pharmaceuticals, blood supplies, and other life sciences items as well some sensitive electronic goods.

Specific Precautions to Ship Temperature-Controlled Goods by Air

If you are shipping temperature-controlled goods by air, special documentation and labeling are required. In some instances, special transportation equipment will be needed – for example, dry ice or even an active temperature-controlled container for air cargo, such as an Envirotainer. Specific temperature-control regulation guidance is maintained by IATA.

Our Expertise

Goods will need to be stored in warehouses with the required cold-chain capability, and your freight forwarder may offer a specialist shipment solution such as DHL Global Forwarding’s Thermonet or LifeConex solutions.

Valuable Goods

The sub-category of special cargo known as valuables includes items at high risk of theft. Examples are gold, jewels, electronics, tobacco, bottled spirits, fine art and antiques, and pharmaceuticals.

Specific Precautions to Ship Valuable Goods by Air

If you are shipping valuable goods by air, your freight forwarder will likely recommend a back-to-back service (also known as a direct service) – a process by which these high-risk goods are transported under their own master air waybill (MAWB) along with other shipments. This minimizes the risk of loss and damage in transit. You may also require additional security measures, such as an escorted truck with GPS or warehouse storage within a high-value cage. Your freight forwarder may require additional security team approvals.

Live Animals

Live animals can include anything from the smallest earthworm to the biggest elephant. 

Specific Precautions to Ship Live Animals by Air

If you are shipping live animals by air, it’s important to understand their basic behavior under stress. You are responsible for making sure each animal is healthy and in good condition, and the carrier is responsible for ensuring your compliance with all regulations concerning documentation, container design, marking and labeling, and routing and reservation information. IATA publishes the regulations on the transport of live animals on their website.

AOG/Emergency Goods

Any aircraft-on-ground (AOG) incident means that there’s a serious problem preventing an aircraft from flying. Perhaps a replacement part is needed before the aircraft can be cleared for take-off, in which case this part is referred to as an AOG or emergency item. It’s a very time-sensitive shipment.

Our Expertise

If you are shipping AOG or emergency goods by air, you will try to get this special cargo on the next flight out or you may charter an aircraft.

Dangerous Goods

Also known as hazmat (an abbreviation for hazardous materials), dangerous goods are articles or substances capable of posing risk to health, safety, or property when transported. Examples include explosives, poisonous or infectious substances, and radioactive material. These goods are classified by the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) and IATA, and they are coded with a UN number.

Specific Precautions to Ship Dangerous Goods by Air

Special packaging will probably be required along with additional documentation, such as a Dangerous Goods Declaration which specifies the type of aircraft on which the goods can be transported (a cargo-only aircraft or one that can also transport passengers). A training will be mandatory to handle your dangerous goods. Here again, IATA publishes the latest regulation information.

Odd Dimensional Cargo

This sub-category of special cargo refers to shipments with dimensions that do not fit into a standard unit load device (ULD) – the container that’s used to move cargo being shipped as airfreight – and to shipments of unusually heavy weight.

Specific Precautions to Ship Odd Dimensional Goods by Air

If you are shipping odd dimensional goods by air, special packaging is likely to be required. For example, if shipping an engine, you may need to also include a suitable engine stand. 

Our Expertise

Odd dimensional cargo is typically handled by specialist freight forwarder divisions such as the DHL Global Forwarding Industrial Projects team.

Perishable Goods

Perishables are commodities such as fresh meats, fish, fruits, vegetables, seeds, and flowers. The preferred means of shipping is air because of a shorter travel time and the opportunity to control the temperature. Typically, these goods are sent as direct shipments.

Specific Precautions to Ship Temperature-Controlled Goods by Air

If you are shipping perishable goods by air, special packaging, marking, labeling and numerous documents are required. If the goods are sensitive to heat or cold, you may need to treat them as temperature-controlled cargo. Read IATA’s regulations on perishable cargo to find out more.

Temperature-Controlled Goods

This sub-category of special cargo includes any items that must be kept within certain temperature ranges – for example 2-8⁰C (35.6-46.4⁰F) or 15-25⁰C (59-77⁰F) – or below zero (32⁰F). Examples include pharmaceuticals, blood supplies, and other life sciences items as well some sensitive electronic goods.

Specific Precautions to Ship Temperature-Controlled Goods by Air

If you are shipping temperature-controlled goods by air, special documentation and labeling are required. In some instances, special transportation equipment will be needed – for example, dry ice or even an active temperature-controlled container for air cargo, such as an Envirotainer. Specific temperature-control regulation guidance is maintained by IATA.

Our Expertise

Goods will need to be stored in warehouses with the required cold-chain capability, and your freight forwarder may offer a specialist shipment solution such as DHL Global Forwarding’s Thermonet or LifeConex solutions.

Valuable Goods

The sub-category of special cargo known as valuables includes items at high risk of theft. Examples are gold, jewels, electronics, tobacco, bottled spirits, fine art and antiques, and pharmaceuticals.

Specific Precautions to Ship Valuable Goods by Air

If you are shipping valuable goods by air, your freight forwarder will likely recommend a back-to-back service (also known as a direct service) – a process by which these high-risk goods are transported under their own master air waybill (MAWB) along with other shipments. This minimizes the risk of loss and damage in transit. You may also require additional security measures, such as an escorted truck with GPS or warehouse storage within a high-value cage. Your freight forwarder may require additional security team approvals.

Live Animals

Live animals can include anything from the smallest earthworm to the biggest elephant. 

Specific Precautions to Ship Live Animals by Air

If you are shipping live animals by air, it’s important to understand their basic behavior under stress. You are responsible for making sure each animal is healthy and in good condition, and the carrier is responsible for ensuring your compliance with all regulations concerning documentation, container design, marking and labeling, and routing and reservation information. IATA publishes the regulations on the transport of live animals on their website.

There are other sub-categories of special cargo, such as weapons, humanitarian and aid supplies, event materials, and human remains.  For each of these items, special handling and documentation may be required.