Why Some Goods Cannot Be Shipped by Air

Why Some Goods Cannot Be Shipped by Air Air freight is typically the fastest way to get something from point A to point B, but it is not without its downsides. Firstly, it is more expensive than ground transportation, sometimes very much so. Secondly, not all items can be transported by air due to restrictions. Why cannot some goods be shipped by air?

The main reason why air shipping restrictions have been put in place is safety precautions. The cabins of aircraft are pressurized in order to create a comfortable environment for the crew and protect them from the problems caused by the low outside air pressure at altitudes above 10,000 ft above sea level. This means the air inside the cabin is at a higher pressure than the air surrounding the plane. During the flight, the pressure inside the cabin falls and rises as the plane changes its altitude. Certain items and materials are sensitive to these changes in pressure and therefore may pose danger to the crew.

Let’s also not forget that a plane is a closed space, which makes in-flight emergencies like fires hard to handle and very dangerous. This is why dangerous items such as flammables and toxins are banned from air transportation, or at least heavily restricted.

The rules and regulations regarding air freight are imposed by the International Air Transport Association (IATA), the international organization that regulates air travel. The IATA identifies nine classes of dangerous goods:

  • Explosive substances and articles
  • Gases (subdivided into flammable gases, toxic gases, and non-flammable and non-toxic gases which could cause asphyxiation)
  • Flammable liquids
  • Flammable solids, self-reactive substances and solid desensitized explosives, substances liable to spontaneous combustion, and substances which emit flammable gases when coming in contact with water
  • Oxidizing substances and organic peroxides
  • Toxic and infectious substances
  • Radioactive material
  • Corrosive substances
  • Miscellaneous dangerous substances and articles (dry ice, lithium batteries, magnetized materials)

Not all dangerous goods are automatically prohibited from air transportation; some of them can be shipped by air under specific conditions (so-called restricted items). For example, it may be allowed to ship lithium-ion batteries as long as they are appropriately certified, packaged and labeled, as well as do not exceed a defined maximum stage of charge, usually 30%. The shipper is the one responsible for properly preparing dangerous goods for shipment by air and completing a Shipper’s Declaration for Dangerous Goods.

However, some dangerous items are usually prohibited from being shipped via regular air freight, although this may depend on the postal/courier company and/or the airline. They include flammable liquids and solids, radioactive materials, corrosive materials, poisonous and infectious substances, compressed gasses (aerosols), magnetized materials, strong acids, and firearms and ammunition.

Some items cannot be shipped by air freight even though they are not classified as dangerous goods. They include, for example, illegal items (because those cannot be shipped, period), live animals, and human remains. Legal items that cannot be transported by air are usually transported via ground; this mode of transportation is slower, but safer and more reliable.

How to find out if an item is prohibited from being shipped by air freight? Since the list of prohibited vs. restricted items may vary depending on the shipping company and/or airline, the best way would be to check out the rules and regulations on the website of the shipping carrier and, when shipping internationally, the import rules of the destination country.