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Should You Ship By Air, Ground or Both? Three Factors Businesses Should Consider

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Every carrier now offers dozens of different types of shipping, but nearly all of them rely on two modes of transportation — trucks or airplanes.

There are pros and cons to both ground and air shipping, of course. Ground shipping is much cheaper, but it’s less secure, takes longer, and is subject to more frequent delays. Air shipping is much faster, ideal for next-day customers — but when planes get delayed, those delays can last hours or days.

Many businesses use a mix of air and ground shipping for clients with different shipment needs. To start optimizing your company’s air-and-ground mix, consider these three basic factors.

Factor 1: Where is Your Shipment Going?

How far is your shipment traveling? Generally, the shorter the distance between the start and end points for your packages, the more likely it is that trucks can cover it by your delivery deadline. But the longer the distance, the more likely it is that you’ll need to use air freight services.

Ground shipping costs are dramatically cheaper than air, so when distances are short enough, it nearly always makes sense to choose trucks over airplanes. But if your packages have to cross thousands of miles in the two-day delivery times customers expect, ground shipping may not cut it. An air shipment is much more reliable for on-time delivery to a faraway location, even if the cost is more.

The U.S.’s major carriers, FedEx, UPS and the U.S. Postal Service all provide a mix of ground and air transportation. Local and regional carriers may only offer ground service, but they may be able to do so at lower shipping rates than the national carriers. Inquire to see if a regional carrier could help you reduce your shipping cost.

Related: Know Your Market: How Your Location Impacts Shipping Rates

Factor 2: How Urgent is Your Shipment?

When does your shipment need to arrive? The choice between air and ground is partly about how fast it needs to arrive, but it’s also about how precise the delivery timing needs to be.

Again, generally, ground shipping is slower. Unless your company is big enough to have its own distribution network, most trucks have to stop at multiple warehouses and complete many deliveries each day. That adds time to each shipment and makes it difficult to guarantee precise arrival times.

Planes, of course, can cover much greater distances in much less time. Your shipment may still have to travel by truck from an air distribution center to its final destination, but it’ll be covering less ground and likely have a shorter transit time.

If your shipment is scheduled to arrive on a certain day or within a range of days, ground shipping may be just fine. But if it needs to arrive at a specific time, air can offer more precise results.

Related: Why Data Is Key To Successfully Managing Your Supply Chain

Factor 3: What Size is Your Shipment?

How big are the products you need to ship? Trucks and planes both have space restrictions, of course. But if your company needs to move 1,000 large parcels, it’s cheaper and more convenient to ship them using a fleet of trucks than it is to find space on several dozen planes.

Relatedly, how heavy are your parcels? Planes are limited in the amount of weight they can carry, which makes heavy parcels much more expensive to ship by air. Trucks, on the other hand, can haul appliances with little trouble — a slight impact on fuel economy, if anything.

For large and heavy packages, ground transportation is almost always cheaper. But if your customers have concerns about reliability or security, there are cases in which air shipments may be a better fit.

Other Factors to Consider: Reliability, Security and Cost

Shippers should also consider the reliability of each method. Ground shipping is subject to occasional delays, usually due to traffic, but these typically aren’t severe enough to change delivery dates. Also, if a truck breaks down, it’s easily replaced by another one. Air shipping is subject to fewer of these delays, but when they happen, they can be much harder to rectify.

Ground shipping is also less secure than air shipping. While theft and destruction of goods is rare in the U.S., it can happen. Airplanes and airports are much more tightly controlled than trucks and highways.

Finally, of course, there’s cost. Every analysis should take into account the fees carriers charge for air and ground shipping. Air is significantly more expensive, and with consumers beginning to accept free shipping, it’s becoming more difficult to pass those costs on to customers. But the convenience and speed may be worth it.

Most companies use a mix of air and ground shipping to meet their customers’ needs. Reducing your shipping spend is about optimizing that mix, so you take advantage of low ground rates whenever possible but use the speed and reliability of air shipping to keep customers happy.