Sea or air transport - which one to choose?

When considering the choice between air and sea transport, several aspects should be taken into account, primarily related to the transport time, its cost and limitations in the quantity and size as well as the properties of the transported goods.

Sea transport

Sea transport is nothing more than the transport of goods on ships. This type of transport gives the shipper great opportunities in terms of the type of goods that can be loaded on the ship. In the case of sea transport, it is possible to transport almost any type of goods, both "oversized" and goods requiring specific conditions, e.g. controlled temperature. This transport is definitely cheaper than air transport, but also much more time-consuming.

A significant percentage of the world's sea transport is the transport of cargo in containers. The most popular are 20-foot, 40-foot and 40HC containers. The organization of the entire transport process is usually handled by agents, i.e. forwarding companies. However, in order to book a place on a ship and a container in which the goods will be loaded, you should contact a shipowner, i.e. the owner of a ship, or a company that charters such a ship, i.e. is its operator.

Air Transport

Air transport, on the other hand, is nothing more than the movement of cargo by air. It allows for very fast transport of cargo between airports. The disadvantage of air transport is undoubtedly its cost, which is why it transports expensive goods or goods with a short shelf life.

Air transport is definitely the most modern and most dynamically developing branch of transport. Air transport may be performed by air agents holding an agreement signed with the IATA organization.

The organisation of the transport process of these two branches includes many identical elements and stages.

Air transport, depending on the customer's requirements, is most often performed on EXW terms, i.e. the shipment is collected from the sender, then customs clearance is organised (if required), then the cargo is handed over at the airport terminal for weighing, checking dimensions and content. After passing the verification, the goods are suitable for the right aircraft for delivery to the final port of destination.

Sea transport of containers, regardless of Incoterms, will consist of:

  • placing a sea container of a specific shipowner at the place of loading,
  • customs clearance of goods,
  • goods insurance,
  • weighing a container in accordance with applicable VGM/SOLAS regulations,
  • delivery to a specific port of origin on a given date,
  • preparation of a sea waybill (bill of lading/BL),
  • sending the final documents to the client after the ship's departure.

However, depending on the customer's requirements, the above-mentioned points may be modified.

Having knowledge about the specifics, similarities and differences of these two modes of transport, it is worth looking at sea and air transport from the perspective of the price and weight of the transported goods.

Air transport charges

The fees for air transport include: port costs such as x-rays and checking the shipment, handling at the airport, issuing documents such as Air Way Bill (AWB), export clearance, if, for example, the goods leave the European Union, delivery to the airport and, most importantly, – air freight.

Basic factors that have a direct impact on the price of such a service are:

  • type and dimensions of the transported cargo,
  • timeliness of order execution,
  • legal assistance at all stages of transport,
  • in some cases – cargo escort,
  • insurance and other factors depending on the characteristics of the transported cargo.

Dimensional shipments require a separate calculation which are quoted individually by airlines.

Charges in sea transport

Sea freight, on the other hand, is determined each time depending on the size of the container indicated by the customer, port of loading, port of unloading and additional services that are ordered, such as customs clearance, container weighing or insurance of goods and their properties.

When to use air transport and when to use sea transport

Air transport is usually used for: general cargo, dangerous goods (DGR), high-value shipments, perishable, heavy and oversized goods, and items requiring short-term delivery.

It is worth knowing that a pallet with goods on a passenger plane should not exceed the following dimensions: 300x230x158cm and gross weight of 4500kg.

Sea transport allows for much larger and heavier unit loads for one-time transport, it also does not matter if the goods are neutral, dangerous, sensitive to various factors, or require refrigeration. It is also worth mentioning that goods that will not fit in a standard container can also be transported in open top or flat track containers, which provide greater loading possibilities.

Further considerations on sea and air transport will be the subject of subsequent articles that will appear on our website. Follow our Know How section for further reading.