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Supply Chain Shipping: Air or Ground?

Michael Wilson | Dec 3, 2019

Before you start optimizing your supply chain strategies, you need to choose a shipping method. There are three major shipping methods that are used: air, ground, and sea. Most ...

Before you start optimizing your supply chain strategies, you need to choose a shipping method. There are three major shipping methods that are used: air, ground, and sea. Most shipments are going to be conducted by air or ground shipping, as sea shipping is usually used for major exports and agriculture. Air and ground transportation are very different, both in terms of cost and efficiency.

Shipping via Air: The Pros and Cons

Air shipping is fast. But it's not very affordable. Air shipping is best used for high priority goods that are lightweight. Air shipping is more costly than ground shipping and these costs rise exponentially due to weight. Perishable goods are often shipped via air, which is one reason why perishable shipping is generally expensive.

Most air shipping is done in the cargo bays of passenger planes. As planes become larger and transport more passengers at once, air shipping can be completed more extensively. But because there is a finite amount of space in these planes, air shipping can be more difficult logistically. When shipping large amounts of parcels or larger individual packages, it can be a challenge.

Shipping via Ground: The Pros and Cons

Ground shipping constitutes the majority of shipping in the world. Even if goods need to arrive quickly, they still can through ground shipping — depending on the distance that needs to be traveled. Large shipments are easier to manage on trucks, and though trucks experience delays more frequently, these delays usually aren't significant enough to be disastrous.

However, ground shipping can be less secure than air shipping. Ground shipments are more likely to get damaged or to experience theft, even if these risks are quite rare. Air shipping is often used for more secure packages, while ground shipping is used for day-to-day shipments. High value items can be best protected during air transport.

Choosing Between Air and Ground Shipping

For your company's supply chain, should you complete your shipping via air or ground? Many companies have two or three methods (including by sea). Lightweight, high priority items are shipped by air, while standard parcels are shipped by ground. Air and ground shipping complement each other very well, as each is valuable for different reasons.

Being able to ship by either air or ground adds flexibility to a company. Some companies may find themselves switching the shipping on some items based on seasonality: perishable goods may make it with ground during the winter, but they may need to be shipped via air during the summer. Other companies may ship based on size. It's easier to ship small batches of product quickly via air, but large batches of product will usually need to be shipped via ground.

Still other companies may have different shipments depending on their vendors and their vendor locations. Ground transportation can be extremely fast if vendors are nearby, but lengthier if vendors are overseas. This brings up an important point: supply chain management.

Supply Chain Management and Shipping Services

Solid supply chain management makes it possible to use the most cost-effective methods of shipping even if they may take a long time. If your company runs out of necessary product, it may be forced to use air shipping when ground shipping is far more affordable.

By improving upon your supply chain management, you can ship things slowly by truck or even by boat, because you'll have properly anticipated your demand. When you're unable to anticipate your demand, you'll find yourself more frequently using more expensive methods of last-minute transportation.

For most supply chain shipping, ground shipping is going to be clearly preferential. For the best experience when ground shipping, a company must strategically position its distribution centers. The more distribution centers a company has, the more advantages a ground shipping service has over air shipping. But air shipping will always have its place, especially when dealing with perishable goods.

Choosing a shipping method is only one part of creating a complete supply chain system, but it's an important one. Ultimately, most of your shipping choices are going to be decided for you via context. If you have to ship things quickly, a container ship isn't going to work. Likewise, if you need to ship large amounts of items, a plane is going to be too expensive. By fine-tuning your supply chain, you can avoid shipping in suboptimal ways, and improve your bottom line. 

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