What Is Air Cargo Shipping and How Does It Work?

Your Ultimate Guide to Air Cargo Management & Tracking

What Is Air Cargo Shipping and How Does It Work?

Air cargo is also known as air freight. It is the most effective way to ship goods around the globe. We’re living in a world where everything was needed yesterday. Fulfilling such deliveries isn’t possible unless the shipment literally flies. And that’s what Air cargo or air freight does—move shipments quickly and safely around the globe.

Air cargo is what the manufacturers and shippers use as an immediate replacement for a broken assembly line. It is how pharma companies transport temperature-sensitive medicines and vaccines worldwide. And it is what retailers use to quickly get electronics with high demand & value on the shelf. While air cargo shipping is done through the same gateway as the passenger or commercial airlines, it can be categorized into general and special cargo.

General Cargo: A general air cargo carries high-value cargo like pharmaceuticals, jewelry, and electronics. Read this guide on how to tackle unique distribution challenges caused by COVID-19 with unique monitoring approach. Even though air shipping is more expensive than sea transport, it is still the best mode for transporting high-margin and fragile goods.

Special Cargo: Preferred type for transporting under special conditions such as temperature control, air conditions, and special casing, usually in cases of hazardous goods or livestock.

How Does Air Freight Shipping Work?

Air freight shipping basically means moving cargo from Point A to Point B using aircraft—the quickest way to transport cargo across the world. However, air freight shipping is a complicated process that involves some crucial steps that one needs to follow:

Step I—Cargo Pickup: The first step is to find a trusted air freight shipment partner and calculate the chargeable weight of your shipment. This is followed by providing the shipment partner the necessary shipment details. Once the shipping company picks the cargo up, they store it in their warehouse for the next steps.

Step II—Quality Check and Labelling: The shipment goes through several quality checks at the shipment company’s facility. After the quality checks, they label the cargo with all the required shipment details. After this, the shipment company prepares the AWB (Air Waybill), and the shipment is transported to the origin port.

Step III—Customs Clearance (Origin Port): Once it reaches the origin port, the air freight shipment undergoes stringent customs checks at the port of origin. Once the customs department is sure that the consignment doesn’t contain any banned or contraband goods, it gets a go-ahead to the port storage.

Step IV—Storage, Loading, and Departure: After successful customs clearance, cargos get loaded into ULDs (Unit Load Devices) that are loaded into the aircraft for departure from the origin port.

Step V—Unloading at Destination Port: After reaching the destination port, the cargo is unloaded from the aircraft along with the AWB and other documents.

Step VI—Customs Clearance (Destination Port): Once the cargo is unloaded at the destination port, it goes through a detailed inspection. Once the customs department clears the air freight shipment, it can move on to the next steps for delivery and leave the port.

Step VII—Delivery: After customs clearance, cargo is moved into containers for further transportation from the port to the destination. These containers are then transported to the destination through rail or road vehicles.

For an organization, the foremost purpose of implementing a visibility solution is to realize its value completely and gain tangible ROI. Hence, there are 5 reasons why you shouldn’t outsource your shipment tracking to 3PLs.

What Are the Biggest Air Cargo Challenges?

If your cargo is traveling by air, it goes through more than just take-off and landing. The process begins way before the plane takes flight — the moment your cargo leaves the facility or manufacturing system — and doesn’t end when the flight lands, but only when it completes the last mile. Here are 6 reasons why setting up your own air cargo tracking system is necessary. Between the first mile and the last mile, your air freight goes through a lot of ups and downs and change of hands, which makes it necessary to keep a check on:

  • Whether your consignment departed on time and in good condition — or were there any detentions at origin or on the way.

  • Whether or not delays affect the shipment significantly — delays that could occur on the way to the airport since you usually must rely on a transporter, worse if it’s condition-sensitive or gets damaged during loading.

  • Whether the cargo has boarded the flight on time — if your cargo is left at the airport and the flight takes off, the rest of the journey is down the drain.

  • Whether the cargo was loaded on the correct aircraft — you could be tracking the wrong flight while your shipment travels on another flight, and you have no clue until the flights land.

  • Whether the goods are in perfect condition — in case the goods are condition sensitive, it is a huge problem if there’s a temperature excursion — everything goes for a toss in case the goods need attention.

  • Whether your consignment reached its destination in full and safely — sometimes a part of your consignment might get left behind, or the whole consignment might get damaged; what if it doesn’t make it to the end in one piece?

  • Whether it went through customs and exited without a glitch — you never know at what stage of customs inspection your shipment is and when it will get released.

  • Whether your cargo was safe to the last mile — you would never know what is happening to your cargo mile-by-mile. Here are 3 reasons why you should care about end-to-end supply chain visibility. If an anomaly occurs in transit or during a random stoppage, there’s no way to know what happened.

Even a slight slip in one of these concerns can put your air cargo at several risks, which mainly include:

  • Delay at the first mile

  • Lack of visibility after take-off

  • Trucker detention at the airport

  • The risk with condition-sensitive goods

  • Tamper during inspection

  • Mishandling during loading/unloading

  • Damaged packages

  • Package segregation

  • Documentation and paperwork-related issues

  • Issues with legal verifications and validations

  • Delay in customs

  • Inaccurate dispatch information

  • Inaccurate ETA for drop-off and delivery

  • Scheduling and routing inefficiency

  • Load deconsolidation and consolidation mismanagement

  • Issues with pickup

  • Missing the OTIF (On Time in Full) mark

  • Lack of last-mile visibility

Podcast with Glyn Hughes, Director General, TIACA; Former Global Head of Cargo, IATA, as he talks about the air freight landscape, trends, challenges, and opportunities

What Is Air Cargo Tracking?

Air cargo tracking involves tracking and tracing air cargo with the help of either the airline, the freight forwarder, the transport operator, or GPS devices. Although air cargo is the quickest and safest way to transport shipments, especially cold chain ones, no one can guarantee that nothing will happen to your cargo. Read this blog to know the 10 potential risks in cold chain management. And therefore, you need to keep a constant check on your air cargo right from the first step when it leaves your facility until the last step when it reaches its destination. Check out these 3 ways to track your air cargo – and one more that’ll blow your mind.

Once you plan and execute a system for adequately keeping track of your air freight, you can be sure that you’re on top of your supply chain. Air freight is generally preferred to be tracked from the first mile to the last mile and through all the stages in between — while sitting at the airports, waiting for customs clearances, and all the paperwork.

Although being on top of your air cargo sounds doable, it isn’t all that easy to pull it off, given how entangled the whole process of managing air shipments is. There are many risks that air cargo faces between the first mile and the last mile because:

  • There’s a distinct lack of accurate, timely awareness, which stems from a lack of data collection mechanisms and standard operating procedures.

  • There have been efforts to address the scarcity of data, and although the industry has adopted more advanced mechanisms, the tracking systems prevalent today need to be improved upon.

  • A big part of the air freight shipping industry is still looking for a system that helps them get better visibility data. This is because of dependencies, systems working in silos, and procedural delays.

The status quo and glacial pace of reform will soon create a firestorm, and there’s a need for change in the way a vital function like air cargo monitoring is being handled. Download this free air cargo tracking solutions comparison sheet.

Why Do You Need an Air Cargo Tracking System?

To manage the many risks involved in dealing with air shipments, it is necessary to always stay on top of your air freight, which can only be done if you can constantly track your cargo and manage the delays and other associated risks. There are many options that current technology affords us to track and trace air cargo, but for that to work out perfectly, we need to look for a perfect solution. Read this blog to know how you can effectively set up air cargo monitoring for your shipments. Most shippers track air cargo with the help of either an airline or a freight forwarder. But that gives only the basic details about your shipment before the flight takes off and after it reaches its destination. It doesn’t provide the much-needed information on what actually happened with the cargo during its journey. If you’re outsourcing your shipment monitoring to 3PLs, make sure to read this blog.

Is Tracking a Flight Enough to Track Air Shipments?

Although tracking and tracing a flight gives you a good idea of the flight’s status — whether it has reached, if it got delayed on the way, or its current ETA — some important things are still missing. It cannot give you first mile and last mile information. For instance, if you ship from Zurich to Knoxville, Tennessee via a flight from Geneva to Atlanta, the time spent in flight is 9 hours. The time spent in the first mile is about a day and another day or two from Atlanta to Knoxville. The time spent collectively in the first & last mile is more than the actual in-flight time — plus, these are the places where the unpredictable can happen. There isn’t usually much that can happen to your goods in flight.

Also, there is absolutely no way you could know about the current condition of your cargo and the overall shipment just by tracking a flight. The point is, you are just tracking the flight, not your cargo. What if you’re tracking one flight while your consignment is traveling on an entirely different flight? Vehicle, container, or package tracking – know what’s right for you. Also, even if you’re tracking the correct flight, what would it tell you about the cargo other than the basic whereabouts?

What Are the Existing Air Freight Tracking Solutions?

Airline-Based Tracking

Using this air freight solution, you can completely automate the air cargo tracking process. All you need to do is connect and integrate your internal ERP with the airline tracking systems. In case your organization isn’t capable of doing this on its own, you can always find a technology partner to help you with the integration process.

Even though this process is helpful and much better than the age-old tracking process, the data you get is still limited to the location of the flight and shipping documents. You still don’t get end-to-end visibility, condition data, or customs status about your air cargo. Here are 6 reasons why it makes sense to set up your own air cargo tracking system. At times, you won’t even be 100% certain if your shipment is on the flight you’re tracking.

Also Read: Here’s why you should care about end-to-end visibility.

Relying on the Freight Forwarder’s Tracking System

You can use another way to get a little more data than from the Airline’s tracking system on your air freight. You can rely on the data from your freight forwarder, which is a combination of data from airline portals and status updates from a 3PL. This can prove to be an excellent way to fetch data for multimodal shipments that use both trucks and air to travel.

But even this air freight solution can only provide you data on the location of the flight, a little bit of first and last mile visibility (not end-to-end yet), and some ease while handling documentation. Here are 5 reasons why outsourcing your shipment monitoring to 3PLs is hurting you. It also provides warehouse data and information on customs status using inputs from integrated EDI systems and the forwarder’s personnel in the field. This system isn’t perfect because it lacks information about the condition of the shipment and package segregation, which is vital.

GPS Tracker-Based Air Freight Tracking Solution

One of the more reliable and more straightforward ways to track is to send wireless tracking devices with your shipment, trackers that will collect and send data through any available communication network and the cloud. Using this system, you can get end-to-end tracking information that is much more reliable than the other ways to track air cargo. But even this solution cannot provide you with live condition data and 100% confirmation about the freight on board; you never know anything about the on-board status or in-flight information.

Additionally, not all GPS trackers are approved for use by all airlines, and it is also a big task to get the GPS tracking devices back from the destination after the consignment has reached there. It becomes a lengthy as well as an expensive thing to bring the devices back, which messes up the overall budget even though the devices themselves might be cheap.

Here are 6 reasons why you should set up your own air cargo tracking system.

These gaps gave rise to the need for a better solution. Let’s see what Cargo iQ is, how it works, and if it is the air freight tracking solution that we were looking for to monitor our air freight shipping operations.

What Is Cargo iQ and How Is It Different from Other Air Track and Trace Systems?

Cargo iQ is an EDI-based platform developed and maintained by IATA (International Air Transport Association). It digitizes communication between everyone involved in an air freight management operation during its journey — airlines, airports, customers, freight forwarders, and shippers — to create harmony and maintain quality standards.

Cargo iQ ensures that everyone in the loop is updated as each stakeholder uploads or feeds information into the platform. In short, Cargo iQ can easily be called the air cargo world’s very own ‘crowdsourced’ ERP. Here is everything Cargo iQ does that one cannot achieve just by tracking an airplane or by using a regular air track and trace system:

  • It is a ‘live’ milestone sharing tool and thus works well in keeping all the stakeholders connected as well as on the same page.

  • It ascertains that everyone in the loop can view the data to check the quality constantly.

  • It facilitates proactive notifications so that it is possible to take corrective actions well within time without any delays.

  • It helps keep quality in check through constant reporting as per standardized quality standards and IATA rules, and air cargo regulations.

  • It helps keep data transparency intact by maintaining data regarding the operational performance of its members. It also maintains the required data privacy during the process.

  • It takes care of critical processes by making the members follow set quality standards and milestones from the first mile till the last mile.

  • It makes sure that there’s no gap between the planned and the actual performance and helps identify the gaps if any.

What Cargo iQ Cannot Do?

Although Cargo iQ does a lot more than just tracing and tracking the aircraft, it is still just like any other ERP — it cannot automate data capture and just acts as a repository of digital data. This tells us that while being the useful system that it is, Cargo iQ still lacks in some areas:

  • It cannot provide real-time updates on your shipment, so you cannot make informed decisions.

  • It provides only post-event data, which isn’t actionable and doesn’t help much.

  • Cargo iQ can’t enable end-to-end tracking, and no information on the first and last mile is available.

  • It doesn’t help to track condition data of your shipment like temperature, humidity, and shock.

  • It doesn’t monitor at the package or item level.

  • Cargo iQ doesn’t have the data you need to make informed decisions for multimodal route optimization.

  • It cannot help with prescriptive analytics.

  • It cannot resolve inventory management issues in air transportation since it lacks information about current stock at dispatch or delivery.

So, Can Cargo iQ be a Monitoring Tool on Its Own?

Cargo iQ came into the air cargo tracking scene like a boon — not only air cargo tracking and tracing but also a complete and constant check on all involved parties and whether they’re meeting the established benchmarks. To be fair, Cargo iQ does considerably more and much better than just tracking the flight, which is precisely what you used to do before it stepped in. But there are some things that it still cannot do, and the biggest reason for it is that Cargo iQ still relies on manual data capturing.

Read More to Know What Cargo iQ Lacks and Whether or Not It is Enough for Your Air Cargo

How Is Air Cargo Tracking Different from Regular Shipment Tracking?

Although air cargo is the quickest way to transport most goods, it is the trickiest to keep track of. This is because there is no network connectivity once the plane takes off. The lack of network connectivity makes it essential to have data logging capabilities in any tracking device you use. Moreover, it would help if you had a power saving option in the air. All this is impossible without a perfect plan to track your air freight at the first mile, at the airport, at customs, on the plane, and at the last mile. But the biggest hindrance with using regular air track and trace devices is that very few fulfill air cargo regulations.

Before using any PED (Portable Electronic Device) on an aircraft, the operator must ensure that the devices have no impact on the aircraft’s safe operation and comply with all safety standards and air cargo regulations. Furthermore, you cannot use your regular GPS tracking devices inside a flight since GPS parameters aren’t considered reliable. This is because GPS reception is random inside an aircraft. Before getting them on board, you must also assess your tracking devices in all operational modes and evaluate them while transmitting data.

Additionally, the in-air segment of your air cargo constitutes a comparatively smaller part of the average journey time. The rest comprises the first mile, time spent in storage & at airports, and the last mile. To track an air shipment, you need an air cargo tracking system that is reliable and accurate. The devices must also fulfill safety and regulatory compliance since not all devices are allowed to fly as per air freight guidelines.

Here’s the Complete Journey that Your Air Cargo Goes Through!

Which Is the Best Air Cargo Tracking Solution?

It stands to reason—given their limitations—that relying on third-party solutions to track your air cargo isn’t an ideal option. There can be more comprehensive solutions that can help you get a more complete picture of what’s happening with your air cargo in addition to Airline, GPS, and Cargo iQ insights. Let’s explore one such solution and how it can help you be on top of your air cargo.

The Roambee Air Cargo Monitoring Solution — The Comprehensive Answer

Even though the air cargo tracking solutions mentioned above can be helpful to keep you almost on top of your supply chain, none of these are free of loopholes, which could mean that your air cargo is still not at its safest. It would be best if you had a solution that not only has everything that your airline, freight forwarder, and GPS shipment tracking system gives you, but also whatever they are missing. This should be a solution that doesn’t just tell you where your shipment is and when it might reach, but also everything else about it, including its condition. This solution should also tell you how the shipment is handled during its journey and a full report from first till the last mile.

You need an on-demand air cargo monitoring solution, which would give you everything you need, using sensor data that’s real, real-time, and relevant to your requirement. Roambee’s Air Cargo Monitoring solution does what the name says — not just tracking but complete live monitoring of your air cargo. It enables you to be proactive with your supply chain problems, so you remove obstacles even before they actually affect your supply chain. Read this interesting blog on when your air cargo went to Vegas with Roambee.

Such a system monitors your air cargo using sensor data so that you can be with your cargo (virtually) from the time it leaves the facility until it reaches its destination. It also ensures no regulatory issues to deploy the devices along with real-time sensor data and actionability. These devices are specially designed for air cargo and will allow you to monitor shipments at an item level. The Non-DG (Non-Dangerous Goods) sensors are IATA approved with non-lithium batteries that last longer using a blend of cloud and edge data.

This kind of monitoring system is beneficial not just for your air cargo tracking but also for complete monitoring of your intermodal shipping operations, where more than just air journey — rail, road, ocean — might be involved. It is usually complicated to track the cargo everywhere it goes in an intermodal freight setting. There are plenty of players and modes of transportation in between, and anything could go wrong — mishandling of the packages, temperature excursions, unknown stoppages, documentation issues.

To comprehensively cover all these troubles with your air cargo/intermodal shipping operation, Roambee’s air cargo monitoring solution provides the following:

  • Real-Time End-to-End Tracking Data — so that you know everything about your shipment from the first mile to the last mile. This includes every step:

    • While the goods are in the facility

    • When they leave the facility and are on the road in the truck

    • When they reach the airport

    • While they’re waiting to board the flight

    • When they are on the flight

    • When they’re getting inspected at the customs facility

    • While they’re opened and repacked

    • On their way from the airport to the destination

    • At the final stage, when they reach their destination and are unloaded.

  • Package-Level Data — instead of just shipment level data. This helps you get package segregation data as well. Here are 6 reasons why you should switch from vehicle tracking to package tracking.

  • Condition Data — which is particularly important if your consignment is condition-sensitive cargo that needs special handling. It will inform you about everything from shocks, temperature excursion, humidity, and the likes.

  • Pre-Emptive Alerts — about the route, condition, and location so that the responsible person can take timely action.

  • Dependable ETA Alerts — enabling informed route-optimization decisions through proper analysis of data.

  • AI-driven Prescriptive Analytics — which enables predictive action rather than corrective action. Explore how the honeycomb supply chain visibility platform does this!

  • Customs Status Data — throughout the entire proces

  • Device Reverse Logistics — so that you don’t have one more supply chain to manage.

  • Helps in Airline Approvals — so that there’s no hindrance in using the tracking devices for smooth monitoring of your shipments.

Compare the Available Air Cargo Tracking Solutions to Choose the Best!

How Can You Introduce an IoT-Based Air Cargo Monitoring System to Your Supply Chain?

Choose a solution that monitors your air cargo from the first mile to the last mile, keeps you on top of it all the time, and is easy to implement. While it might seem like a more convenient option to use EDI systems like Cargo iQ or GPS devices to track your air cargo, you need to contend with the gaps that exist in these systems. You don’t want it to be a costly setup. Therefore, you must look for a solution wherein you can let experts handle the air cargo monitoring with the perfect combination of IoT + AI + RPA without a considerable capital expenditure on the system, with minimal manual intervention. Read this blog to know how IoT + AI + RPA is the future of Digital Supply Chains. The system must be easy to implement, not as expensive as other solutions, and doesn’t need you to modify existing processes or even rely on a forwarder or airline to manage it since someone else is doing it for you.

Make sure that the solution you choose to monitor your air cargo doesn’t just take care of the air cargo monitoring but is also easy to implement. It is imperative for this system to be easy to integrate with your existing ERP. It should be able to provide you with live alerts and predictive analytics, and the most important thing—it should be scalable.

Here’s how Roambee can help you implement such a system.