What is an Air Waybill?

Meg Higa

The air waybill (AWB) is a straightforward legal document contracting a named airline company to fly a specified package of goods from the airport of one named sender to the airport of another named recipient. The package might be a small box of diamonds in the front seat of a single-engine aircraft headed cross-country. It might be a 15-foot container filled with live seafood in the hull of a jumbo cargo plane headed to a different country. Regardless, all commercial merchandise entrusted to a transportation company for shipping by air must have accompanying transport documents. The most important one is the air waybill.

A man presenting an air waybill.
A man presenting an air waybill.

It takes three parties to complete the transfer and fulfill the contract. The sender of the package is the consignor, the airline company is the carrier, and the recipient of the package is the consignee. An air waybill is, therefore, also called an air consignment note, and it identifies in writing the three parties.

Freight forwarders coordinate the shipping of goods for another party.
Freight forwarders coordinate the shipping of goods for another party.

The AWB form also identifies the contents of the package. For international shipments and packages containing a great variety of merchandise, the AWB may reference an addendum transport document called a packing list. It describes the package and its contents in detail — size, material composition of the goods, quantities and, most importantly, weight. The cost of air freight is largely a calculation based on weight, and precautions must be taken to balance the weight in the cargo hold of an aircraft.

The consignor delivers a package to an air transportation company, whether it be the airport cargo docks of a passenger airline that will accept the package as if it is a piece of luggage for a ticket-paying customer, or an authorized agent of the airline, such as a freight forwarder or consolidator. Payment is negotiated, and an AWB is drafted and signed by the two parties. Each AWB form has a tracking number that codifies the carrier and assigns a unique number to the package.

The consignor’s copy of the AWB is a receipt for the sale of transport services. His signature testifies that the package, as per description on the air waybill, was transferred to the carrier. It is also an acceptance of the carrier’s shipping instructions, usually printed on the reverse side of the document.

The carrier’s signed copy, in turn, acknowledges that the package is now in the carrier's possession. It also accepts the terms of carriage as specified in the shipping instructions. The carrier has the contractual obligation to deliver the package by plane to the destination airport and to notify the consignee when it arrives.

Finally, the consignee retrieves the package, either at the airport’s cargo docks or from an employed freight agent. He signs the AWB, acknowledging receipt of the package as described, and retains a copy. The air transport company keeps another final copy of the AWB with all three signatures as proof of delivery and fulfillment of the contract.

It might seem at first glance that an air transport company ought not to accept a package whose contents are, in truth, unknown. An air waybill has several important characteristics that address this. The first is that it is a contract of good faith. The consignor is liable for any damage to aircraft or people resulting from faulty information in the document. If the consignee is a buyer, no doubt he would also be upset if the package and its stated content are not correct.

Secondly, most carriers offer insurance policies against the contents of a package shipment. Seller and buyer can agree to include this additional cost in an air waybill. They can also acquire a third-party insurance policy as an addendum transport document.

Finally, the AWB is a non-negotiable, non-transferable, legal instrument. It is not a document of title. Unlike a functionally identical negotiable bill of lading for sea, rail, or road transport, an air waybill does not confer ownership of the package to a carrier for the temporary duration of possession. The carrier’s contractual obligation is for the service of carriage only, and there is little need for considering the value or integrity of the contents of any given package.

An air waybill is used for small packages traveling on small aircraft, as well as cargo on jumbo jets.
An air waybill is used for small packages traveling on small aircraft, as well as cargo on jumbo jets.

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