How to Plan Your Freight with Changing Timelines

Planning freight movement around your purchase or sale is a fundamental part of the supply chain. This includes deciding whether air or sea freight is more suitable for your business requirements and assessing how changing timelines could impact your sale or purchase. If you’re looking for guidance on how to plan the shipment of your freight, you’re in the right place. Below, we’ll look at why freight timelines change and provide tips on how to factor in changing timelines to your purchasing decision.

Why freight timelines can change

It is frustrating, although not surprising, that freight timelines change. Below, we’ve outlined some factors to explain why transit times via air or sea freight may change from the moment you book, to the moment you receive your goods.

Prior to reading on, we suggest you take a look at our blog on the differences between air freight and sea freight when shipping your cargo.

Sea freight will typically take longer than air freight and is also subject to more areas of risk. Here are some of the causes of delays that you may experience when shipping via sea freight.

shipment delays port terminal

When shipping by sea freight:

  • Missing cut off times

Cut off times are fixed dates when cargo must be booked in at the port.

If the goods miss the cut off time for the intended vessel, they simply cannot be shipped. There is usually a document cut off time one day before the cargo cut off time. This is one of the biggest factors that will impact your timeline. Missing the cut off means you can be waiting up to a week before the next sailing.

  • Blank Sailings

This is the term used to describe a vessel sailing that is cancelled. A blank sailing can refer to one leg of the journey being cancelled, or the entire voyage.

Sometimes, to lower capacity to meet demand, organised groups of carriers will deliberately create blank sailings by cancelling scheduled voyages. This, in turn, may cause an increase in freight prices.

  • Lack of equipment

If your shipment requires specialised equipment for transportation (such as reefers, open tops or flat-racks), you may experience some delays. You may find that shipping lines at your port of export do not possess the equipment you need.

If this occurs, you may have to wait until equipment becomes available before you can secure a booking. Forwarders will often approach a variety of shipping lines to secure special equipment or may transport equipment from one port to another for your use.

  • Container Rolls

Rolled cargo refers to cargo that is not loaded onto its intended vessel. There are several reasons for this – the main one being that the vessel ran out of capacity. Vessels typically run out of capacity because carriers overbook spots on vessels, similar to how passenger airlines overbook seats to ensure the capacity is full.

  • Delays at transhipment ports

If you decide to ship your cargo via a transhipment route (rather than a direct route) your cargo may face extended delays. Transhipping means shipping your goods to an intermediate destination prior to the final destination. It’s similar to when you need to catch a connecting flight.

Delays can, unfortunately, occur at busy transhipment ports, especially during the peak shipping season. The main transhipment ports for Australian importers are in Singapore and Port Klang, Malaysia.

  • Delays at customs

Prolonged delays can have a significant impact on your shipping timeline. There two main factors that contribute to a delay at customs are:

  1. The need to inspect cargo – this may be because the cargo has caused some concern, the goods are at risk of stink bugs or need to be fumigated; and
  2. A lack of required paperwork and documentation, such as a missing Packing Declaration or Commercial Invoice (see our blog on the 5 Shipping Documents You Need for Import or Export). It’s critical to ensure that your paperwork is accurate when organising a shipment to avoid any delays.
air freight being loaded onto plane

When shipping by air freight:

Your timeline may also change when you’re shipping by air freight, so it’s important to take into account these contingencies when planning your shipment.

  • Air cargo not loaded

On some occasions, your cargo might simply not be loaded onto the aircraft. This is not always the same thing as rolled cargo (as discussed above).

For example, only a certain amount of dangerous cargo can travel on one flight. If your dangerous cargo has been booked but the aircraft is at complete capacity for dangerous goods, then your cargo may be delayed.

  • Lack of space on the aircraft

Lack of space on an aircraft can sometimes be an issue when shipping goods by air.

In these cases, cargo can be short shipped (which means, for instance, half the cargo will be sent while the other half is made to wait for the next aircraft).

If your cargo has been short-shipped, your forwarder will ensure the rest of your cargo follows on the next available flight.

  • Delays at Transhipment Airport

Similar to delays at transhipment seaports, delays can also occur at airports used as transhipment points. Transhipment cargo points at airports are often very busy and whilst delays are not frequent, you should take the possibility into account when planning your shipment.

  • Customs Clearance delays on export or import

 Whether shipping via air or sea, customs can choose to delay your cargo for security purposes. Delays that occur with customs export or import are typically inspection and documentation-related. We emphasise the importance of having all the required documentation prepared prior to your shipment arriving at an airport in Australia.

port terminal shipping yard

How to factor freight timelines changes during your shipment

There are two primary ways you can prepare for changing timelines that may affect your shipment.

These are:

#1 Build a buffer

Being extra cautious is often a good idea, we recommend:

  • Allowing at least an additional week either end for sea freight. That way, you’ll be guaranteed a buffer of a total of two weeks to allow for any unexpected contingencies that may arise in the course of your shipment.
  • Five-day safety net for air freight. Because air freight doesn’t usually take as long as sea freight to arrive, a safety net of five days should ensure that you are covered in case of anything unexpected when your goods are travelling by airfreight.
  • Caveat your sale and purchase. To avoid any legal problems associated with your goods being delayed, caveat your sale or purchase as being ‘subject to delays’ or ‘subject to the goods being available’. That way, you may be covered in case of an unexpected delay. You should always consult a legal professional when drafting and/or negotiating a sale contract.

#2 When it’s urgent, go airfreight

If your goods need to be delivered urgently (or sooner rather than later), you should typically select air freight as your method of shipment. Further, see if a direct route is available to avoid any transhipment delays. Airfreight is, however, more expensive so consider whether this is an expense you are willing to outlay.

Extraordinary cases: Where Freight Transit Times Dramatically Change

There are sometimes extraordinary cases where freight is delayed a lot more than usual. Whilst it is often impossible to plan for events like these, it is a good idea to have in place a marine insurance policy in case the goods are lost or damaged. We’ve listed some examples below where freight transit times dramatically change without warning.


At the time of writing, COVID-19 is causing extraordinary delays in shipping across the globe.

For instance, at the time of writing, in Queensland, Maritime Safety Queensland made the decision to exclude all visiting cargo ships until they had been 14 days at sea. Shipping Australia commented that this could lead to huge shortages of food and household goods. The Australian Border Force also imposed rules in March that all people entering Australia via cargo vessels were to self-isolate for 14 days before leaving the ship.

Some e-commerce retailers are prioritising specific goods in high demand, with some delivery delays lasting as long as a month. Amazon Prime announced that certain “non-essential” items would not be treated with as much urgency as more essential goods. This has become more significant now that online retailers are experiencing large levels of demand because of lockdown laws put in place in many countries.

We’ve also experienced delays at ports because the workers at the ports themselves have been made to self-isolate. There are reports of slowed vessel turnaround times, the number of deliveries lowering and many cargo ships falling behind schedule.

You can read more about the impact of COVID-19 on our Coronavirus impact blog.


Economic trade wars: The U.S.-China Trade War

Economic trade wars between countries have resulted in significant delays in the shipping process.

The economic trade war between the United States and China is a key recent example. It was reported last year that the tariffs imposed on goods were resulting in “cargo coming in that just sits”. In the Port of Los Angeles, containers were “stacked high”, the lines of trucks were “long” and warehouses were simply “bursting at the seams”.

Further questions?

Our shipping and freight specialists at ICE Cargo have demonstrated expertise in planning complex shipping timelines for imports and exporters.

If you’ve got any questions relating to organising your shipment, don’t hesitate to contact one of our friendly staff members or leave a comment below.

Request a Free Quote or call us on 1300 227 461

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What Others Are Saying About International Cargo Express

Managed goods end to end

Due to critical stock levels we needed a fast solution to urgently meet growing client demand. Presented with this challenge, ICE quickly identified appropriate freighter services and proactively managed the movement of goods end to end.

Eddie Liaw – Supply Chain Director

ICE offered flexibility

ICE offered flexibility, high levels of communication and attention to detail during our pick, pack and delivery project. With their professional support we were able to meet the demands of our supply chain knowing our freight was in safe hands.

Tony Kealy – National Distribution Manager

Without exception and on time

Since having International Cargo Express handle my ocean freight , I have had my bookings and equipment available without exception and on time. Communication between ICE and my supplier is very good and I receive information via my shipper before my supplier.

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