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Why is air cargo suddenly affordable relative to ocean shipping?

AskWaves explains how the gap between air and ocean freight transport has narrowed during the pandemic

(Photo: Jim Allen/FreightWaves)

The cost to ship goods around the world by air is about 2.5 times more expensive than before the pandemic. On major trade lanes, where demand is especially high, such as China and Southeast Asia to the United States, rates are five or six times higher than normal for the peak shipping season.

So how has airfreight become a relative bargain when ocean shipping is cheaper?

The air rate from China to the U.S. West Coast during the first week of November was about $14 per kilogram, double what it was a year ago, according to the Freightos Air Index. Shipping by air to the East Coast cost about $13, also twice as much as in 2020.

We all know the reasons by now. Passenger aircraft are the source for more than half of air cargo’s global capacity, and most of them stopped flying when COVID started spreading and restricted travel. Fewer border restrictions this year have increased demand and helped start airlines toward recovery, but international air capacity is still about 70% below pre-crisis levels.

Meanwhile, demand, especially in North America, is at record levels as federal relief monies and higher savings rates gave people more disposable income, which they disproportionately spent on goods over services, while the manufacturing sector suffered dislocations and a lack of labor. Inventories have been unable to catch up.

Air is usually the mode of last resort, limited to perishables and high-value goods with margins that can cover the extra expense. Incredibly, airfreight has become a bargain relative to ocean shipping for many companies, especially when measured against the cost of stockouts and lost sales. 

That’s what happens when supply chains are turned upside down by constant chaos.

Ocean shipping demand to North America is up more than 20% compared to 2019. Carriers and ports have been overwhelmed, resulting in huge delays and port backlogs demonstrated most clearly by the 80 container vessels waiting last week for a berth at the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach. Glitches in the system — from COVID outbreaks to accidents — created more havoc because the system is so stretched.

Spot tariffs — for immediate transactions not subject to more favorable long-term contracts — can cost upwards of $20,000 for a forty-foot equivalent unit from China to the West Coast when a host of premiums and surcharges are included. That’s 10 times greater than pre-pandemic rates and doesn’t even include domestic transportation to move a shipment across the country.

Many companies, especially retailers worried about product shortages for big holiday shopping events, are trying to make up for lost time by shifting goods that normally move by ocean to air.

The decision to convert ocean freight to air is easier for shippers because air transport is much more cost-competitive than it has ever been. 

Pre-pandemic, the average price to move air cargo was about 13 to 15 times higher than ocean, but now it is only three to five times more expensive, according to the International Air Transport Association and industry experts. 

Here’s how IATA arrived at that estimate.

Economists at the airline trade group take the Freightos Baltic Index, which measures spot market tariffs plus surcharges per FEU of chargeable weight. Assuming one FEU is equal to 9,000 kilograms allows them to translate container rates into a price per kilogram and compare them with data for air cargo fares per kilogram of chargeable weight that is visible in IATA’s in-house system CargoIS. The data comes from millions of airway bills processed by IATA’s cargo account settlement system and information submitted by airlines.

Click here for more FreightWaves/American Shipper stories by Eric Kulisch.


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Eric Kulisch

Eric is the Supply Chain and Air Cargo Editor at FreightWaves. An award-winning business journalist with extensive experience covering the logistics sector, Eric spent nearly two years as the Washington, D.C., correspondent for Automotive News, where he focused on regulatory and policy issues surrounding autonomous vehicles, mobility, fuel economy and safety. He has won two regional Gold Medals and a Silver Medal from the American Society of Business Publication Editors for government and trade coverage, and news analysis. He was voted best for feature writing and commentary in the Trade/Newsletter category by the D.C. Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. He won Environmental Journalist of the Year from the Seahorse Freight Association in 2014 and was the group's 2013 Supply Chain Journalist of the Year. In December 2022, he was voted runner up for Air Cargo Journalist by the Seahorse Freight Association. As associate editor at American Shipper Magazine for more than a decade, he wrote about trade, freight transportation and supply chains. Eric is based in Portland, Oregon. He can be reached for comments and tips at [email protected]