The History of Air Freight

One of the most popular transportation options available to shippers, air freight, has become a much relied upon service all over the world, but unlike sea freight, it’s history is much shorter.  While the movement of goods by sea can be traced back thousands of years, we only have to look to the last century to see how the idea of the cargo plane took flight:

1910 – The first air shipment

The very first air freight shipment on a cargo-only plane took to the skies over a century ago in 1910, when a US department store decided to fly 200Ibs of silk the 65 miles from Dayton to Columbus. The Model B plane, invented by the famous Wright Brothers, raced against an express train to see which method could deliver the silk the quickest. With a trouble-free flight of less than an hour, the plane won, clearly demonstrating to the world that air freight or sea freight could be a viable shipping option.

Fast fact: With a recorded journey time of 57 minutes, the first cargo-only air freight shipment broke the world speed record at the time, cementing air freight as the quickest (by far!) way to get goods from A to B.

1911 – Airmail

Two further examples of the potential of air freight followed in 1911, with airmail demonstrations in both India and the UK. In the UK, a month-long airmail service ran as part of the Coronation celebrations for King George V, moving mail the 21-mile distance from London to Windsor.

Fast fact: The UK airmail experiment was terminated after just 16 flights due to constant and severe bad weather delays. Those early planes just weren’t built to withstand the temperamental British weather – even during the relatively mild month of September!

1920s – Cargo and passenger transport combined

Undeterred, aviation and the air freight industry continued to grow steadily, with increasingly reliable planes transporting a combination of both passengers and goods (something that is still common practice today). As technology advanced and the confidence in air transport improved, planes were now venturing further and crossing water.

Fast fact: In 1919, the first scheduled flight from London to Paris carried one passenger, leather for a shoemaker and grouse for a restaurant – an interesting cargo combination!

1939 to 1945 – World War II

Enormous advances were made during the war years, as aeroplane technology was invested in and developed as a matter of urgent priority. Planes played an important role during World War II, as the quickest way to transport troops, weapons and supplies.

Fast fact: During WWII, engineers in both the UK and Germany raced to develop the jet propulsion engine technology that would elevate the possibilities of air travel to new heights.

Late 1940s – Air freight takes off

An important event in the history of air freight occurred in 1945 with the formation of the International Air Transport Association. All-cargo airlines started to emerge, although it was still common for planes to carry a combination of cargo and passengers. Planes now had the capacity to travel further and faster, but the full potential of this for global trade wasn’t realised until decades later.

Fast fact: In 1968 Boeing launched the 747 – the first aircraft wide enough to transport full pallets in its cargo hold. This was a big win for the air cargo industry!

1990s – The boom of the ‘express’ parcel

It wasn’t until the 1990s that the idea of planes with the primary purpose of transporting cargo really gathered pace. This was thanks to the growth of express parcel carriers (such as FedEx, DHL and UPS), and the rise of the internet, which made air freight a much more accessible and reliable prospect for importers and exporters.

Fast fact: Without air freight, the idea of ‘express delivery’ wouldn’t exist. When travelling by sea, shipments from China to the UK can take weeks or even months to arrive. Send the shipment by air, however, and you can cut this down to just a few days!

Present day – A global marketplace

The internet really has opened up a global marketplace, and it’s never been easier to import or export goods. Air freight offers a quick and easy way of moving goods, but this can come at a price. As a general rule of thumb, you can expect shipping by sea to be the cheapest method; however, there are exceptions.

Airlines bill a chargeable weight, which is calculated on the weight and size of the shipment. With sea carriers, you have the option of shipping a full container load or a ‘less than container load’ (usually calculated by cubic metre). Therefore, small and lightweight packages may actually work out cheaper to ship by air.

You should also consider the value of other benefits of shipping by air. It’s a much quicker method of shipping, for example, which could have benefits for your business. It’s also generally a more reliable method as air cargo carriers will often run daily schedules, so timescales are less impacted by delays. Sea cargo carriers are more likely to have weekly schedules, so if a shipment ‘misses the boat’ it has more of an impact on timescales – although a freight forwarder with a good network will always work hard to minimise this.

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