Pros and Cons of Ocean vs Air Freight Shipping // Complete Guide

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Is it better to ship ocean vs air freight? What are the restrictions on shipping hazardous goods? Does air or ocean shipping have a smaller carbon footprint? We answer these questions and more in this blog post!
ocean vs air freight

Table of Contents

So is ocean vs air freight better? When you are shipping you need to figure out if you want your product shipped fast, or shipped cheap. The overly simplified answer is if you want cheap, ship by the ocean if you want fast ship by air.  But that is way oversimplified and there are several other factors such as environment, restriction on hazardous goods, volume shipped, protection form demand and much more that make the decision much more complicated. 

One thing buyers need to know is the actual step of shipping is just one of over half a dozen parts that you need to pay for when shipping from overseas. Check out our full guide on the cost of shipping freight. 

Ocean vs Air Freight // Pros and Cons

Ocean and sea shipping are the two main options for shipping large volumes overseas. Each of these methods has benefits and disadvantages.

There are a few cases of rail shipping from China to the European Union, but that isn’t as common and can only be done on one train. If you are interested, check out the Yiwu to Madrid line, the world’s longest rail route!

Pros and Cons of Ocean Freight

As you can guess this is the process of loading up your shipment on to a giant vessel and having it transported by sea from one port to another. These ships can be massive and they are almost always the most cost-effective method of shipping cargo. 

Benefits of ocean shipping

  • Cheapest option
  • Prices are determined by volume, not weight
  • Have full control of the container from the factory to destination

Cons of Ocean Shipping

  • Slow, sometimes taking more than a month
  • Delays are common

Pros and Cons of Air Freight 

When shipping by air, you are loading the cargo onto a plane and shipping from one airport to another. As planes can travel significantly faster than ships, Air shipping is much faster. 

That speed does come at a cost. Air shipping is typical3 to 6 times more expensive to ship than by ocean. Air Shipping is also more restrictive on what items can be shipped, for instance, there are major restrictions and regulations regarding goods that have batteries. 

Benefits of Air shipping

  • Fast, often taking less than a week 
  • Can ship further inland than ocean shipping

Cons of Air Shipping 

  • Expensive
  • Strict regulation on what can be shipped
  • Price is determined by weight and volume
  • Can’t ship as a container

When choosing between ocean vs air freight shipping you need to figure out which factors are most important for the shipment and make a decision that is best for you and your business. 

Restrictions on Hazardous Goods for Air Freight 

When shipping goods via Air, you need to be aware that the rules are very strict on what can and cannot be shipped. These include many obvious items like explosives, as well as some more surprising items like magnets and batteries. 

The categories include:

  • Explosives
  • All Flammable items (including aerosol sprays and more)
  • Gases 
  • Toxic or Corrosive items (Many batteries are included)
  • Magnetic substances (including speakers) 
  • Public Health Risk
  • Oxidizers and organic peroxides 
  • Poisons and toxins
  • Radioactive material

If any of your items fall into any of these categories, you MUST follow very detailed procedures to ship. Here is the official Guide from US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA): https://www.faa.gov/hazmat/what_is_hazmat/

You can still ship items that are considered Hazardous, but the amount of extra safety needed and permits often make it extremely difficult and expensive. In addition, the fines for making a mistake can be in the $10,000’s. 

It should be noted that while air shipping is extremely strict, ocean shipping also has its own restriction on what can and can’t be shipped. Ocean shipping does allow for more items but you do need to be mindful of the regulations and restrictions. 

Express Ocean Freight

As technology gets more advanced, and ships get faster, OCean Freight is now much faster than before. As a result, there are now express ocean shipping options you can get items from Factory to the final destination via ocean shipping in as little as two weeks. 

The most obvious advance is faster ships, but this is also enabled by technology which allows for faster customs clearance and more efficient inventory management in ports and on ships. 

This applies both to FCL shipment and LCL shipments. For LCL there are services called Expedited LCL that can instantly match LCL shipments leaving and arriving at the same or similar destination. These shipments are bundled together in a full container and can now match the time of FCL shipments.  Another benefit of Expedited shipping is that it comes with Guaranteed delivery dates.

Other improvements that are making shipments faster are upgraded Canals. Panama spent more than $6 Billion to expand the Panama Canal. This more than doubled its capacity and allows ships to pass through much faster than before. 

It should be noted that express or Expedited ocean shipping does come with a cost. Choosing an express service option is at least 50% more than standard ocean shipping, however, considering that air shipping is about 3 to 5 times more expensive it may be worth paying for ocean shipping. Express ocean shipping does a good job of filing the middle ground, in terms of cost and speed, of air shipping and standard ocean shipping. 

Is Ocean or Air freight better for the environment? 

which has a smaller carbon footprint –ocean vs air freight? Believe it or not, the answer isn’t actually clear. There are actually many different variables for both that have different results when you compare CO2 emissions or overall emissions. 

Ocean vs Air freight carbon footprint

If you are looking solely at CO2 emission than air shipping creates more CO2 emissions per kg/mile than ocean shipping. Jet fuel, however, is the highest grade of fuel and burns much cleaner with few by-products (CO2 notwithstanding).

However for overall emissions ocean shipping, is actually worse as most ships use some of the lowest grades of fuel, called bunker fuel, which has extremely high sulfur content. Further, most container ships have little to no means to block or filter emissions. This makes shipping one of the main sources of sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxide, and particulate pollution. Ocean shipping alone creates 18% of all emissions globally.  

For a detailed breakdown of the environmental impact of each view this link. 

Final Thoughts

While the most common factors of why you should air or ocean are cost or time, there are other considerations such as emissions, shipping restrictions on hazardous materials, or overall value. For most shipments, ocean shipping is suitable as the longer time is factored into the supply chain. However, there are urgent needs where time is a priority. Air shipping is also better for perishable items that have a limited shelf life.

So ocean vs air freight? Ultimately the choice is yours. 

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Jim Kennemer

Jim Kennemer

Jim Kennemer is the Founder of Cosmo Sourcing and Sourcinghub.io. He has helped 100’s of clients source more than $100 Million USD worth of products from both China and Vietnam. Products that he has sourced have ended up in almost every major retailer for clients from over 30 countries.

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