WASHINGTON — As fuel prices rise and brands get better at producing globally, fewer shipments are taking to the air en route to their final destinations.
However, shipping via plane remains an important tool for fashion producers working on a particularly tight deadline, as well as stores looking to control their inventory and keep their selling floors fresh. Those choosing to ship by air simply have to be willing to pay for it. Air transport is about six to 10 times more expensive than ocean transport.
"The air freight volume [for apparel] has been decreasing for the last two years," said Anthony Chan, president of Star Global North America, a logistic firm specializing in air transportation. "We see a substantial decrease in volume for apparel. This year, the volume has dropped by 30 percent based on the customers that we're handling, which are the leading importers."
Chan pinned the drop on two factors — the push for cost savings and better planning on the part of importers.
The fuel surcharge on air freight now weighs in at 65 to 75 cents per kilo, or 2.2 pounds, though base prices for air freight have not changed dramatically, he said.
"The average cost has become quite stable," said Chan. "More and more aircraft are being pumped into the market."
Some shippers are using a combination of sea-air programs that help them move goods quicker than they could using all-water transport but at a lesser cost than full-price air fare. In the case of China, this often means putting goods on a boat to Pusan, South Korea, and flying them to the U.S. from the Incheon International Airport. Chen said this route costs about 30 percent less than shipping from China by air, if the sender can afford a couple of more days of transit time.
The decrease in air freight might also show a maturation, as globalization has taken hold and apparel firms and other importers get better at navigating the international transportation system and deciding when to lay down the extra money for air.
"Depending upon the product type and origin, shipping by air could save one to three weeks, at a cost of $1 to $3," said Bob Zane, chairman of the U.S. Association of Importers of Textiles & Apparel and a former Liz Claiborne senior vice president. "Is it worth it? Sure, if the product would otherwise arrive late, if it's in hot demand, if its appearance at the store is likely to generate more sales."Zane said almost all companies use a combination of air and ocean transportation to get goods to market, with some companies taking to the skies for 80 percent of their shipments.
"If you bring it in by air, it takes a lot less time," said Stephen Lamar, executive vice president of the American Apparel & Footwear Association. "You're not depending on clearing stuff through the West Coast ports, which many times run well, but have had their difficulties over the last couple of years."
Many times, brands turn to air freight to make up time for production glitches such as raw material shortages or longer than expected color approval processes.
Shipping via air can also be used to gain a competitive advantage.
"It's obviously much more expensive, but if you can sell more of your goods at a higher price, than you might be able to recover more than the amount of the higher prices associated with the air freight," said Lamar.
Vendors can also use air freight to their advantage. Such was the case for intimate apparel firm Biflex, which helped J.C. Penney roll out its Ambrielle private label line this year.
"Because it was such a high-profile and important rollout for J.C. Penney, we made the commitment to ensure that the product would be in stores for the launch and to do it we invested $1 million in air freight," said Joe McConnell, senior vice president of operations at Biflex.
The company also bypassed its own distribution center and sent the goods directly from its freight forwarder to Penney's.
"Many times when you air freight you're doing it knowing you're going to lose your margin, but you do it because the customer's important to you," said McConnell.
In general, goods that are shipped by air share a few traits, said Bob Dahl, project director at Air Cargo Management Group, a Seattle-based consulting firm.
Usually, the goods have a high value-to-weight ratio, like an iPod, or are perishable, like strawberries. Apparel, especial trendy looks with a short shelf life, can fit into both of those categories and are an important part of the air freight industry, said Dahl."Getting something into the marketplace and being able to stay on top of trends is very important to retailers," said Dahl. "We're paying more to move goods by air now than we did three years ago and the airlines and other companies involved in the air freight industry are imposing fuel surcharges. The amount of fuel surcharge is higher on the air side than it is on the ocean side."
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