Have you tracked your air shipment and found that only 23 cartons of 100 arrived? Or, maybe you’ve heard this popular message from one of the larger air carriers, “your shipment has been split for more efficient transportation.”

More efficient? For whom?  Split Shipments occur when an air carrier transports cargo covered under a single Air Waybill on more than one aircraft.  It’s not a happy message for anyone on the shipping or forwarding side, but, if we can help explain a few of the fundamental reasons it happens, we can start plotting ways to avoid it.  The last part of that sentence is actually a bit optimistic- more on that to follow.

At the airline’s origin warehouse, the process of receiving, inspecting and building the cargo positions for several flights simultaneously is a non-stop process.  Each flight has a unique load plan with pre-determined positions for the cargo booked.   Cargo is consolidated onto and into Unit Loading Devices (ULD) that can be secured inside the aircraft.  The bookings are then staged and reviewed, waiting to be loaded and ready to board the plane.  Then, it happens… a message is radioed to the tarmac that two ULDs need to be bumped, and your cargo is one of the unlucky winners of this “lottery”.    Now, your booking is spread over three flights.

1. Weathering the Storm

Regardless of the aircraft’s configuration, passenger or freighter, the load plan takes into consideration how much fuel is needed to operate a given flight.   Weather is a factor because, among other reasons, more fuel is needed in adverse weather in case of re-routes, holds, or strong head winds.

2. Personal Baggage

If you have ever been on a plane when the flight attendant makes an announcement that the plane is weight restricted and they need volunteers to be bumped, you understand the fate of split shipment cargo.  That said, the cargo doesn’t give her the evil eye like all the passengers on my last trip did.  It is essential to remember that on passenger flights, the first thing to get bumped is the cargo.  Another factor affecting weight is the amount of personal baggage.  You may have read that luggage fees have reduced the total weight of baggage in modern times (which should leave more capacity for cargo).   However, the luggage fee effect is greatly diminished for international trips where passengers still pack several heavy bags for longer trips.  If, at the last minute the weight and cubic measure of baggage exceeds what was estimated, space is generally sacrificed and taken from cargo operations.

3. High Priorities

Unlike passengers, cargo shipments can neither volunteer to get bumped for free miles or free trips.   When one considers the high cost of air cargo, it seems likely that some cargo shipments which are much more valuable than a passenger ticket are bumped in the name of customer service.  However, when the flight is full, the load plan will take as much cargo as possible; and the priority is not unlike the familiar First, Business, and Economy for passengers.  Each air carrier has a unique rate structure that allows for cargo to be booked at a higher boarding priority. The more you pay the higher on the list your cargo sits.

The forwarder and the shipper have no control over the cargo once tendered to an air carrier. We can request no cargo splits; however, what is more effective is choosing carriers that prove to be reliable and efficient and that provide the best options for your individual needs.  If your cargo splits it’s extra work on clearance and delivery, but it is not uncommon and usually doesn’t cause much delay at destination (if you partner with the right forwarder).

Fortunately, there are two main steps you can take to avoid and/or minimize the occurrence of split shipments:

  1. You can limit the number of pieces that make up a shipment by packing more into a carton or building efficient pallets, or book ULD’s if your cargo is the right size
  2. Book your cargo at a higher service level.

And, at a bare minimum, you can expect a few split shipments throughout the year and be ready for those by planning carefully with your forwarder for all possible scenarios.

Can you relate to this blog?  Tell us about your split shipment stories in the comments below!