Air waybill (AWB)

An air waybill (AWB) is a legal document issued by an airline or freight forwarder that serves multiple purposes in the air cargo shipping process. It acts as a receipt for the goods being shipped, outlines the terms and conditions of the shipment, and provides detailed information needed for customs clearance.  The AWB also facilitates real-time tracking and serves as proof of the contract between the shipper and the carrier. Various types exist, including Master Air Waybill (MAWB), House Air Waybill (HAWB), and e-Air Waybill (e-AWB), each serving specific shipping requirements.

Key takeaways

  • Definition: An air waybill is a document issued by an airline or a freight forwarder. It serves as a receipt for goods and an agreement between the shipper and the carrier.
  • How it works: The air waybill is filled out by the shipper and carrier, detailing the terms of the shipment. It's then used for tracking, customs clearance, and serves as proof of shipment.
  • Types: Air waybills come in various forms, like master air waybills (MAWB) for multi-carrier journeys and house air waybills (HAWB) for shipments via freight forwarders. Digital options like e-air waybills offer paperless efficiency, while specialized types like direct air waybills are suited for non-transfer shipments.
  • Pros and cons: Air waybills offer speed and comprehensive tracking but come with higher costs and weight limitations. While they standardize international shipping protocols, they can also pose environmental concerns and increased risk of damage.
  • Explore your options: Before choosing a type of air waybill, consider your specific needs. Is speed crucial? Are you shipping internationally? What's the shipment size? Evaluate these factors to make an informed decision.

How it works

Master air waybill (MAWB)

This is issued by the principal airline carrying the goods when multiple carriers are involved. The MAWB covers the entire journey of the shipment, from the original shipper to the final consignee, across all carriers involved.

House air waybill (HAWB)

Freight forwarders issue this when they consolidate multiple shipments. The HAWB specifies terms between the shipper and the freight forwarder, usually covering the journey from the shipper to a deconsolidation point where it joins a larger shipment.

e-air waybill (e-AWB)

This is a digital version of the traditional paper air waybill. An e-AWB increases efficiency by reducing paperwork and allows for faster, more accurate tracking. It's part of the industry's move towards digitization.

Straight air waybill

This is a non-negotiable air waybill issued directly to a named consignee. Unlike negotiable documents, the straight air waybill does not allow ownership of the goods to be transferred to another party during transit.

Air cargo consolidation waybill

This is used when smaller shipments from various shippers are consolidated into one larger shipment. It enables more efficient use of cargo space and may offer cost benefits by leveraging bulk rates.

Direct air waybill

Specifically used for shipments that don't require a transfer to another carrier, the Direct Air Waybill minimizes handling points. This generally speeds up the delivery process and reduces the risk of damage or delays.

Pros and cons


  • Speed: One of the biggest benefits is the speed of delivery. Air transport is the fastest method to ship goods globally, making it ideal for perishable items and time-sensitive products.
  • Tracking: Air waybills come with sophisticated tracking options. Real-time data helps businesses and customers keep tabs on shipments, improving accountability and reducing uncertainty.
  • Legal protection: The document serves as a legal agreement between the shipper, carrier, and receiver. It outlines responsibilities and liabilities, offering protection in case of disputes or issues.
  • Standardization: Because air waybills are universally accepted, they help standardize shipping protocols. This is particularly valuable in international trade, as it minimizes confusion and speeds up processing.


  • Cost: Air freight is generally more expensive than sea or land options. The higher costs can significantly impact the overall budget, especially for small businesses or individual shipments.
  • Weight limitations: Air carriers have stringent weight and size limits. This can be a major drawback for shipping bulky or heavy items, often necessitating the use of alternative methods.
  • Environmental concerns: Air shipping has a high carbon footprint compared to other shipping methods. This is a growing concern as businesses and consumers are becoming more eco-conscious.
  • Risk of damage: Air cargo usually goes through multiple handling points, including security checks and transfers. Each point increases the risk of goods getting damaged or lost.

Explore your options

Now that you're familiar with the intricacies of air waybills and their role in air cargo shipping, you might be considering which type best suits your needs. Companies like Amazon, FedEx, UPS, and DHL offer various air waybill options, each with its own set of features tailored for different shipping requirements. 

By exploring these options, you can take advantage of real-time tracking, streamlined customs procedures, and efficient global shipping to meet your logistical demands and enhance your supply chain operations.

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