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Importing from China? Air or sea shipping, which works best for you?

Each mode of shipping has advantages and disadvantages We take a look at a few of them.

Vaughn Cook RockWell Window Wells
Chris Schell
July 3, 2019

One of the concerns buyers have while importing goods and components from China is which mode of transport to use. Ocean shipping may seem like the obvious answer for those dealing with large volumes as it is way cheaper, while others may consider air freight because of the time advantage it has over sea freight. But cost and time aren’t the only factors to consider. You should take into account the kind of product you have, the risk of damage to that product and even the environmental impact of the mode of transportation.

Each mode of shipping has advantages and disadvantages. We take a look at a few of them.

Cost of shipping

Air freight is definitely more expensive – at least 12-16 times the cost of sea freight, according to the World Bank – because an aircraft has a limited capacity as compared to a cargo ship. This is why about 90% of the world’s shipping is done by sea.

But cost also depends on volume and weight. It may be worthwhile to ship a smaller consignment by air instead of by sea as the difference in price between the two modes of transport is much less for lighter cargo than for heavier loads.

Context is also important. How important is it to you that your shipment reaches on time? Are the components in your consignment vital to the business or production process of a valued customer? Will that customer lose money and trust in you if the shipment is not delivered on time? If so, air freight may be the way to go.

Besides cost of transport, both modes of shipping largely have the same customs clearance or destination charges. However, if your sea consignment is LCL (less than container load) and not FCL (full container load), you may have additional charges such as those to consolidate your LCL shipment along with other cargo into a container at a Container Freight Station. So keep this all in mind while calculating which mode of shipping is the most cost-effective for you.

Transit time

Here too air freight wins. The transit time for air freight can vary between three days to five days in most cases, with 10 days at the most. 

On the other hand, sea shipping – say, between Shanghai and Los Angeles – can take between 21 days to 30 days.

However, some logistics companies offer Express LCL (less than container load) service, which is faster than traditional LCL shipping and is being promoted as an alternative to air freight for a very competitive cost.

Do remember, however, that air freight means your consignment will be transported from one airport to another. Similarly, big ships only go to certain ports, which may be far away from your warehouse or factory. A freight forwarder will have to handle customs clearance and transportation to your factory or warehouse (who pays them depends on the shipping agreement you have signed with your supplier). That can add to transit time.

Reliability and risk of damage

While reliability of both air and sea shipping is dependent on good weather, aircraft tend to stick to their schedules better than ships. Sea cargo can face delays in the form of bad weather or congestion at ports. Additionally, flights run more frequently than ships. If your consignment misses a flight, it will not be long before it can be put on the next flight. Cargo ships, however, have weekly schedules, which can further delay a shipment that has already missed one deadline.

Second, it is a popular misconception that air shipping can be gentler on your packages. Anyone who has seen cargo loaders at airports tossing packages around will help rid you of that perception. Additionally, packages that are shipped by air are sometimes not secured as well as packages shipped by sea. For instance, air cargo sometimes is not loaded in pallets. In this case, the risk to the consignment is great. I can guarantee you that your package will be tossed around at airports if it is not loaded on a pallet.

In my experience, things that do not break during sea transit might break in air transit.

Here’s a story that may sound funny now but was very annoying when it happened. A few years ago, I dealt with a consignment that was shipped by air. It was a metal product that was glued to plastic. Every single part broke during air freight. But the same product was delivered intact when it was shipped by sea. We just weren’t able to figure out the problem. I am guessing it was to do with air pressure, temperature differences and different rates of expansion and contraction of metal and plastic.

Air vs sea: Limitations

From clothing to cars to heavy machinery to aircraft parts, a cargo ship can hold anything, but air freight has its limitations.

While there are some really massive cargo planes – the Antonov An-225 Mriya for instance – but even that has a maximum take-off weight of around 640 tonnes.

Compare this to the capacity of the world’s largest cargo ship, the OOCL Hong Kong, with a carrying capacity of 21,413 TEU. The dimensions of one TEU or Twenty-Foot Equivalent Unit are equal to that of a standard 20 foot container, which is 20-feet long and 8-feet tall. The maximum cargo an An-225 can carry will fit into a corner of this ship.

Air freight has other limitations too. Certain types of cargo are forbidden or restricted and cannot be transported by air. The list varies depending on airline and country, but they include flammable items such as perfumes and gases, toxic or corrosive items such as batteries, magnetic substances such as speakers, chemicals and so on.

Sea freight does not have all these limitations, which gives it an edge over air freight.

Environmental impact

At the end, it’s not only about cost and convenience. What about the environmental impact of the transportation of goods on the planet?

It is a no-brainer that air freight has a larger carbon footprint than sea freight.

According to timeforchange.org, transporting cargo by air emits 500 grams of carbon dioxide per metric tonne per km. On the other hand, cargo transported by a modern ship emits 10 grams to 40 grams of carbon dioxide per metric ton per km.

But this does not mean you sit back and feel good about yourself while sending cargo by sea because maritime shipping may be the most carbon-efficient mode of transport but it still contributes to noise pollution, oil pollution and damage to marine animals such as whales due to collisions. Maritime shipping can still do better.

Emissions by the shipping industry are projected to increase significantly if business carries on as usual. One study says that shipping emissions could  increase between 50% and 250% by 2050. Initiatives like the Sustainable Shipping Initiative are, however, working to lower the carbon footprint of the shipping industry by collaborating with all stakeholders.

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