The Ultimate Guide to Air Cargo Trucking and Recovery

April 12, 2022
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A troubling new reality has settled into the world of freight management. Rates are rising. Consumer demand is increasing. Finding capacity is getting more challenging than ever. And those problems are not limited to a single mode. Trucking capacity is scarce, and handling expedited freight, while at a premium, should be easier, right? That’s where many shippers and freight forwarders experience hardship. Even with paying premium rates, finding the right level of service is challenging.

Knowing how to arrange freight pickup at different airports can be complex. What types of technology are used for air cargo tracking, and will freight scheduling teams be able to find coverage for air cargo and freight pickup without impacting the customer experience?

These questions reflect the need for a better air cargo trucking and handling strategy. Whether an experienced or novice freight management party, such strategies must begin with a thorough understanding of air cargo trucking and recovery.

What Is Air Cargo Pickup and Recovery?

Air cargo is a critical industry in today’s freight world. E-commerce proliferation and accelerated customer expectations for fast delivery have put greater demands on air cargo. Air cargo is the fastest means of transport, enabling shippers to move goods around the globe overnight or in mere hours within the domestic U.S. Still, air cargo, which represents a $20 billion industry as of 2020, is operating in reliance on air cargo trucking.

Remember that all freight shipped by air needs to move on a truck at some point. This is the air cargo delivery process. After the freight is loaded and flown to the destination, the recovery process begins.

Recovery is simply another term for the physical recovery or pickup of goods at an airline cargo terminal.  However, some people might be confused, given the nomenclature of air freight pickup and delivery services.

For example, express air freight is a term usually reserved for an end-to-end shipment process managed by a single carrier, such as UPS or FedEx. However, the world of e-commerce must rely on many more carriers than these behemoths, especially in markets where trucks are scarce. Fortunately, those willing to pay for the speed of air freight can understand why the trucking side of air freight recovery is costlier.

Why Air Freight Is Costly and How to Calculate Your Rates

Air freight, like over-the-road freight, is moved based on both an actual and dimensional weight. Dimensional weight involves a calculation of the density of a pallet and its actual weight. It’s a means to assess a larger weight for bulky, low-weight packages. Imagine shipping boxes of clothing versus bricks. The larger packages are still taking up more space than items of heavier, more dense shipments would require. As a result, this levels the playing field and helps to encourage shippers to move denser freight pallets.

Now, there are instances where the dimensional weight, or volumetric weight, is less than the pallet’s actual weight. Still, the airline will assess charges based on which weight value is higher.

A similar process occurs in managing the air cargo trucking and handling process. The rates depend on the volume and weight, as well as the urgency and speed of transit and recovery.

What Happens After Contacting an Air Cargo Trucking Service Provider

It’s easy to assume that air cargo trucking rates are based solely on the rates charged by airlines. However, there is much more involved than meets the eye for air freight scheduling and managing the next legs of transportation. For instance, consider the typical load lifecycle of an air freight pallet and what’s involved to ensure its timely delivery:

  • A freight forwarder starts the process by emailing an air cargo handling and recovery services provider like Carrier911 with the shipment details, including the number of pallets and the origin/destination information.
  • A customer service representative then looks through the available capacity to find a truck with space that’s closest to the given pickup location and headed toward the final destination.
  • The company then also vets the drivers’ capabilities to ensure the trucking service chosen is the right fit for the shipment. Since time is of the essence, it’s important to know that a driver will be able to follow through on each booked air cargo load and not end up otherwise disposed or delayed.
  • The service provider then emails all required information back to the forwarder or shipper for review. Upon receiving subsequent approval from the shipper or freight forwarder, the truck is booked. This is the initial execution of the shipment.
  • The service provider also uses different systems for air freight tracking to maintain control and ensure freight visibility over the entire shipment lifecycle from landing through final delivery.
  • Depending on the specific airline and airport policies, documentation requirements may differ. In general, it’s best to ensure each shipment includes all release letters, proof of payment, bills of lading, delivery orders, and air waybills.
  • As a final step, the provider also ensures full compensation for the trucking company and driver by completing all invoicing and payment processes.

That is an elementary explanation of what actually happens. There may be numerous calls, emails, and interactions throughout the process. But first, let’s also consider the reasons why companies opt for air freight, i.e., the benefits of air freight over other modes.

Benefits of Choosing Air Freight

Choosing air freight offers several core benefits over traditional freight transportation. Speed is the most obvious, but there are a few other benefits to consider, including:

  • Streamlined customs clearance. Since air freight shipments have an origin and cannot be tampered with while in transit, they can go through a pre-clearance process to avoid Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and Transportation Security Administration (TSA) delays.
  • Reliability of air freight shipping and handling. Since air freight is based on a straightforward takeoff and arrival schedule, it’s easier to account for expected delays and plan trucking moves to complete the shipment lifecycle. Still, there are some risks, as evidenced by winter storm closures or limited labor resource call-outs, that have led to the cancellations of some flights. As a result, the reliability may have dwindled slightly due to such disruptions, but it’s still overall more reliable than other forms of transportation. Of course, that depends on the reliability of ground shipping to handle the final mile of transportation to a distribution center (DC) or end-user.
  • Worldwide reach. The scale and scope of air freight are additional benefits for moving loads by air. Rather than being limited to a rail ramp or ocean port, airports can be anywhere! That flexibility has allowed today’s e-commerce retailers to move freight around the globe and back again. However, the same worldwide reach also begins to drag up some of the challenges that may arise in air freight, including cultural differences, changes in laws, and the need to scrutinize what’s traveling through the skies continuously.

Even with these substantial benefits as evidence and a reason for using air freight, some issues may arise at the time of recovery.

The Challenges of Air Cargo Trucking

Air cargo trucking and air freight pickup face significant challenges beyond simply hoping the plane isn’t delayed at the time of take-off. Top challenges include:

  • Airline and airport miscommunications, such as telling shippers and forwarders that loads are not yet ready for pickup. This problem comes from airlines’ lack of visibility or missing information regarding shipment status. Yes, the freight may have arrived at the destination, but it’s a lose-lose scenario if the person managing the phones or gates cannot locate the freight. Furthermore, airlines are the business of flying, not moving goods by ground. Therefore, they are less likely to be as stringent on ensuring freight is offloaded and ready for truck pick up on their own.
  • Failure to follow through with pickup details and status after handing off paperwork to air cargo truckers at the airport. Depending on the service level, airport, and airline, shippers and forwarders may be given the paperwork for freight with little direction or information regarding the shipment. The same applies to truckers picking up cargo. Such problems make it easier for mistakes to occur, delays in routing to happen and lead to a diminished customer experience.
  • A lack of ownership of transportation after freight departs the airport. This issue builds on the prior problems. Airlines do not have any vested interest in the cargo after it departs the airport. This puts the full burden on the forwarders or shippers to know what’s happening, when something will arrive, and what may happen to influence extra costs (accessorials) or delays in transit (weather, traffic, or other factors).
  • Poor communication and collaboration with shippers and forwarders that may not know when and where to take over the next steps in transportation. Missing information and a lack of collaboration make it challenging to plan for the next leg of transport. While expedited trucking services are at a premium already, poor communication and collaboration can drastically drive up landed costs. For instance, if the freight is delayed excessively, the risk of a return skyrockets, and according to Oracle, 13% of customers will never order from your company again. Clearly, late deliveries are a major risk factor for returns and lost customers. In turn, all charges incurred while getting a load to a destination on time become meaningless and wasted.
  • Limited services available for air cargo trucking as many believe air freight pickup includes air freight tracking and service through final delivery. Unlike the major carriers (DHL, FedEx and UPS), air cargo trucking may comprise owner-operators and smaller, regional carriers that can move freight at rates better than national or international carriers. However, these carriers may rely on different systems that shippers and carriers simply do not have. As a result, the service providing air cargo recovery, scheduling freight pickup, and following through on the transaction should have the ability to offer air cargo tracking, including air freight tracking before, during, and after a plane lands.
  • Limited technology and poor customer service for freight that’s time-sensitive. The airline industry is all about moving goods by plane, not by truck. Their technology is built for moving freight on and off aircraft faster and with a lower risk for damage. However, that doesn’t always translate into effective, thorough, or clear customer service. Therefore, shippers and forwarders usually have to figure out on their own how to get freight from a terminal to its next destination. This is also complicated for shippers that may need to deconsolidate pallets, temporarily store goods, or handle other needs. Ultimately, the whole process is usually disjointed and confusing at best.

After considering the full view of air freight trucking and recovery, there’s another side to the topic—the state of the air freight market and how it influences air cargo recovery costs and activities. Remember that while the challenges make air freight confusing, the market dynamics make air cargo recovery all the more burdensome.

What’s the State of Air Freight and Air Cargo Trucking?

Air freight movements continue to be subject to the ongoing disruptions in freight. That includes the continuing effects of the pandemic and the potential disruptions that lie ahead. As noted by Greg Knowler via the Journal of Commerce, “The severely constrained capacity and resulting record spot rates on the world’s major air cargo trade lanes will not ease until widespread long-haul passenger flights return to service, particularly in key Asian markets, industry executives believe.”

These major air cargo lanes experience above-average demand, resulting in above-average demand for air cargo handling and recovery. Since recovery is the literal pickup of delivered air freight at a given airport, shippers need to consider the differences in the market. Part of the rising air freight costs, mainly due to the limited number of flights from COVID hotspots, result from less available air cargo capacity (belly capacity) on commercial jetliners.

Knowler also noted how Subhas Menon, the Director-General of the Association of Asia Pacific Airlines (AAPA), described the issue, “even though the recovery of the global economy and air travel demand is underway, international passenger volumes across Asia-Pacific remain ‘deeply depressed,’ a factor keeping belly capacity in the region out of the market. International traffic in Asia-Pacific is at 6 percent of pre-pandemic levels, compared to an average of 40 percent in other regions.” Moreover, the continuing backlogs in ocean freight have pushed more shippers and forwarders to consider more air freight moves than usual.

Ocean freight, while more cost-effective, is slower due to its nature. But, even that regular delay is too significant for some of today’s freight management parties. Knowler further explained, “With demand outstripping available capacity for months — exacerbated by ocean shippers moving to air because of congestion and delays — outbound spot air cargo rates from Asia have climbed to all-time highs. 

In the first week of December, air cargo rates from Shanghai to North America reached the record of $14.04 per kilogram, up more than 80 percent from the same period in 2020 and more than four times higher than in the same week in pre-pandemic 2019, according to the Baltic Air Index (BAI). Shanghai–Europe rates hit $7.87/kg in mid-November, up 40 percent year over year and more than double the 2019 rate.”


But even with rising air freight rates in December, the industry does seem headed to a better place.

Air freight rates are starting to decline globally and on average, following the sharp increase of peak season 2021, says Freightos. Still, air freight rates are increasing for Europe and China-originating air shipments headed to the North American West and North American East airports. As a result of rising rates for air freight moving around the globe, the need for air cargo trucking will drive trucking rates upward too. Moreover, this comes in tandem with forecasted growth in e-commerce. E-commerce growth inevitably accelerates trucking and air rates while also adding in a degree of certainty over arrivals, unloading, and delays.

The rates alone also do not paint a complete picture of what’s expected in the industry, Knowler wrote. “According to data from the International Air Transport Association (IATA), the global airline industry lost $137.7 billion in 2020, is on track to report a combined loss of $51.8 billion in 2021, and is forecast to report an $11.6 billion loss in 2022.” Such losses mean consolidation is likely in the future. And consolidation will result in greater uncertainty over which airlines and airports will accept air cargo arrivals and appointments for air freight pickup.

That directly implies an absolute need for more transparency and top-notch accountability in finding and scheduling freight pickup from airports and airlines across the U.S. and beyond as conditions evolve in 2022.

Shippers should therefore have a clear strategy for air cargo trucking and handling well before the freight arrives at the destination airport. That’s the only way to ensure a transparent, end-to-end view of the shipment’s needs and ensure successful final deliveries.

What Should Freight Management Parties Do to Manage Air Cargo Recovery?

The path to successful air cargo recovery and delivery means knowing how to approach each load and avoid the challenges detailed above. To achieve those goals, freight management parties should follow these steps:

  • Ensure documentation is accurate and complete.
  • Know the policies and requirements for each airline and airport.
  • Track the pallets’ real-time location and movements.
  • Keep your team informed of changes and expectations.
  • Have a plan for long- or short-term warehousing.
  • Know what carriers are available for air freight pickups.
  • Consider the impact of other market dynamics, especially airports closer to ocean ports.
  • Recognize the urgency of air freight trucking and management.

While these simple steps can help, they ultimately mean shippers and forwarders are still left trying to figure out how to arrange freight pickup on their own. But fortunately, that leads to the next best step, working with another party.

What to Look for in an Air Cargo Trucking Provider

The steps to improve air cargo recovery are a great first start to ensure a better experience and management of air cargo. However, the best true strategy means knowing what type of air cargo recovery service provider can actually fulfill those promises and needs. The ability to get freight to its final destination, whether that’s a warehouse, retail shop, distribution center, or rural fulfillment center, depends on the expedited trucking service chosen. And not every company can claim to have the experience and capabilities to pick up every order, regardless of time and constraint. In other words, shippers and freight forwarders should look for these qualities when assessing an air cargo trucking provider:

  • Accountability of carriers with air freight tracking, including measuring on-time pickup performance and knowing which trucking carriers are available at all times through world-class analytics platforms.
  • Around-the-clock service, answering the phones and emails, responding immediately, and not leaving shippers or forwarders in the dark about rates and expectations for recovery.
  • Transparent pricing structure based on the actual market conditions and the urgency for each expedited freight shipment needing recovery.
  • Experience in cargo pickup for your preferred airports and airlines.
  • Works with forwarders and other carriers alike to streamline pickup and know which carriers work best for each location and route.
  • Prepares cargo for OTR transit, including sending to third-party facilities for deconsolidation and distribution.
  • Digital document management to make handling air cargo deliveries and customer service easier.

Streamline Air Cargo Trucking With Carrier 911

Managing air cargo trucking doesn’t have to be a nightmarish, low-visibility process. In fact, the urgency behind expedited air freight pickup and handling means that your service provider should pull out every stop to ensure you have a high-quality, enjoyable, and hassle-free experience. That’s the reality that shippers need to come to realize. Air cargo pickup and air freight tracking go hand-in-hand to ensure more on-time, in-full deliveries for time-sensitive freight.

Turn that vision into a reality by understanding the basics of air cargo handling and pickup, the challenges common to air freight trucking, and what you need to know to pick the right expedited service provider. Of course, part of that involves a robust assessment of the service provider’s technologies, capabilities, and reputation. Fortunately, Carrier 911 already has all that covered and can help new and established shippers and freight forwarders transform air cargo recovery efforts into a turnkey, digital process. Connect with Carrier 911 to get started today.

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