Maturing ocean cargo shipping technologies have helped divert significant amounts of business from air freight, and trends point to the shift continuing, a Seabury study concludes.

A joint study with the International Air Transport Association (IATA) released earlier this year concluded that a combination of factors have combined to divert 15.2 million metric tons of freight from aircraft to ships since 2000.

While the change represents a slight bump to ocean freight volumes, it is a huge share of the air freight market.

Seabury calculates that the mode shift is the difference between a potential growth rate of 4.5% per year if air freight held its share and the actual annual rate of 2.6%.

One of the most affected goods categories is perishables. Improvements in ocean container technology help slow the ripening process, for instance, meaning foods such as tomatoes can be shipped less expensively by sea and not lose shelf life. Seabury determined that 97% of all tomatoes traded are sent via ship, compared with 48% in 2000.

Short trade routes have seen the most increase in mode shift, but Seabury says still better technology could be a game-changer on longer trade routes. Papayas are shipped exclusively by ship within Southeast Asia, and 88% by water between South American countries. However, only 7% of papayas sent between Northern Europe and South America travel via ocean container.

Seabury notes that not every commodity has similar mode splits, but the ones that do include fresh beans, capsicum, and mangoes. "Those would be the prime candidates for mode shift, but quantifying the actual volumes involved is more difficult," says Seabury Maritime Advisor Derek Brand. That’s because the evolution of new technology like controlled atmosphere containers on ships could change macro trends—such as what is shipped—in addition to how current products are moved, he explains.

The shift to ocean freight is one of several factors that has the air cargo industry staggering. Yields are falling for the third year in a row, and annual revenues went from $67 billion in 2010 to $60 billion last year, IATA figures show.

The air freight sector is not sitting idle. IATA Head of Air Cargo Des Vertannes is calling on air freight leaders to help improve services, starting with trimming average transit times from 6-7 days to as short as 4-5 days.

"We have certainly introduced new types of containers that have helped widen the range of goods we can transport. And some handling facilities have been built that offer an incredible level of automation and quality control," Vertannes told IATA’s World Cargo Symposium attendees in March. "But in terms of processes, we are in the same world that marveled at the electric typewriter. And our transit times are no faster than in the 1960s."

Vertannes also renewed his call for greater adoption of electronic air waybilling and more consistency in cargo handling facilities worldwide, such as with "cool chain" facilities at airports.

Maturing ocean cargo shipping technologies have helped divert significant amounts of business from air freight, and trends point to the shift continuing, a Seabury study concludes.

A joint study with the International Air Transport Association (IATA) released earlier this year concluded that a combination of factors have combined to divert 15.2 million metric tons of freight from aircraft to ships since 2000.

While the change represents a slight bump to ocean freight volumes, it is a huge share of the air freight market.

Seabury calculates that the mode shift is the difference between a potential growth rate of 4.5% per year if air freight held its share and the actual annual rate of 2.6%.

One of the most affected goods categories is perishables. Improvements in ocean container technology help slow the ripening process, for instance, meaning foods such as tomatoes can be shipped less expensively by sea and not lose shelf life. Seabury determined that 97% of all tomatoes traded are sent via ship, compared with 48% in 2000.

Short trade routes have seen the most increase in mode shift, but Seabury says still better technology could be a game-changer on longer trade routes. Papayas are shipped exclusively by ship within Southeast Asia, and 88% by water between South American countries. However, only 7% of papayas sent between Northern Europe and South America travel via ocean container.

Seabury notes that not every commodity has similar mode splits, but the ones that do include fresh beans, capsicum, and mangoes. "Those would be the prime candidates for mode shift, but quantifying the actual volumes involved is more difficult," says Seabury Maritime Advisor Derek Brand. That’s because the evolution of new technology like controlled atmosphere containers on ships could change macro trends—such as what is shipped—in addition to how current products are moved, he explains.

The shift to ocean freight is one of several factors that has the air cargo industry staggering. Yields are falling for the third year in a row, and annual revenues went from $67 billion in 2010 to $60 billion last year, IATA figures show.

The air freight sector is not sitting idle. IATA Head of Air Cargo Des Vertannes is calling on air freight leaders to help improve services, starting with trimming average transit times from 6-7 days to as short as 4-5 days.

"We have certainly introduced new types of containers that have helped widen the range of goods we can transport. And some handling facilities have been built that offer an incredible level of automation and quality control," Vertannes told IATA’s World Cargo Symposium attendees in March. "But in terms of processes, we are in the same world that marveled at the electric typewriter. And our transit times are no faster than in the 1960s."

Vertannes also renewed his call for greater adoption of electronic air waybilling and more consistency in cargo handling facilities worldwide, such as with "cool chain" facilities at airports.