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Types of Aircraft Used for Cargo Air Charters: Choosing the Right Fit for Your Cargo Transportation Needs


16th August 2023

turbo prop plane taking off

If you’re thinking of transporting cargo by air, then you’ve arrived at the right place. We’re going to be discussing everything from the benefits of air cargo charter to the types of aircraft available, and how to select the right one for you and your business.

What is an air cargo charter?

Air cargo charter is the exclusive rental of an entire aircraft to transport goods, as opposed to an air freight shipment that might contain cargo from multiple senders. Air cargo charter is designed for organizations that require tailor-made air freight services and it’s an ideal solution for companies with variable-sized or sensitive cargo, or if delivering to a remote location with limited route schedules.

What are the benefits of air cargo charter?

Air cargo charter is the go-to option over sea or road freight for many different industries and is a popular choice for organizations that need to transport high-value goods, live animals, oil, gas, and dangerous goods. Not only is it faster than sea or road freight, but it’s best used for shipments of high value and low volume. You can read more about the benefits of air charter in more detail here.

Factors influencing aircraft selection

An air charter broker will be able to advise you on the best aircraft for your cargo, budget, and timeframe, but it’s important to know the key considerations that go into the evaluation, so you can understand how solutions and costs are created.

Here’s a rundown of the key factors that will ultimately influence which aircraft to charter.

  • Payload Capacity: The primary consideration is the aircraft’s payload capacity, which determines the maximum weight of cargo that can be transported. The aircraft should be able to accommodate the desired cargo volume and weight safely and efficiently.
  • Range & Endurance: The range of the aircraft, i.e., the maximum distance it can fly without refueling, is crucial as it should be able to cover the intended routes without limitations. Additionally, the endurance of the aircraft affects its ability to operate for extended periods, especially for long-haul flights.
  • Cargo Configuration: The cargo aircraft’s interior design and configuration should match the specific cargo requirements. Factors such as cargo door size, floor loading capacity, and specialized equipment (e.g. pallet loading systems and cargo handling devices) are essential to ensure efficient loading, unloading, and securing of cargo.
  • Operating Costs: Evaluating the operating costs of an aircraft is critical. Fuel efficiency, maintenance expenses, crew requirements, and other operational factors impact the overall cost of operating the cargo aircraft. It’s important to find a balance between payload capacity and operating costs to maximize cost-efficiency.
  • Airport Infrastructure: The cargo aircraft selection should consider the availability and suitability of airports and their infrastructure at both the origin and destination points. Factors such as runway length, runway strength, handling equipment, and customs facilities must be compatible with the aircraft you select.
  • Regulatory Compliance: Compliance with aviation regulations and certifications is essential. The selected cargo aircraft should meet the necessary safety standards, airworthiness requirements, noise regulations, and any other applicable regulations in the regions where it will operate.

Types of Aircraft for Cargo Air Charters

Ok, so now the exciting part. Which is the right aircraft for you? As you can probably imagine, there is a multitude of different aircraft that are used to transport all types of cargo.

Each aircraft type offers different payload capacities, ranges, and operational capabilities, allowing charter operators to select the most suitable option based on the cargo transportation needs of the end user.

Turboprop Aircraft

Turboprop aircraft are powered by turbine engines that drive a propeller. They are known for their versatility and short takeoff and landing capabilities and are often used for cargo charters to transport smaller cargoes, and perishable goods, or to reach remote locations with limited infrastructure.

  • Cessna Caravan: A single-engine turboprop with good short takeoff and landing capabilities, suitable for smaller transporting smaller payloads to airports with short runways.
  • ATR-12: A twin-engine turboprop aircraft with a larger payload capacity, commonly used for regional cargo transportation.
  • Beechcraft King Air: Versatile twin-engine turboprop aircraft used for transporting smaller cargo or for air ambulance services.

Narrow-Body Freighters

cargo air charter being loaded

Narrow-body freighters are typically passenger aircraft that have been converted for cargo operations. These aircraft offer a good balance between payload capacity and range, making them suitable for regional and domestic cargo transportation.

  • Boeing 737: Widely used as a narrow-body freighter, offering a good payload capacity and range for mid-level cargo operations.
  • Airbus A320: Converted versions of the A320 series aircraft are employed as narrow-body freighters, providing efficient cargo transportation on short to medium-range routes.
  • McDonnell Douglas MD-80 series: Converted MD-80 series aircraft serve as narrow-body freighters for cargo transportation across short-haul distances.

Wide-Body Freighters

Wide-body freighters are larger aircraft with a wider fuselage, designed for long-haul flights and intercontinental cargo transportation. This category of aircraft offers significant payload capacity and can transport large volumes of cargo over longer distances.

  • Boeing 747: The iconic jumbo jet, available in freighter versions such as the 747-400F and 747-8F, offers large cargo capacity for long-haul cargo charters.
  • Boeing 777: Wide-body freighter with significant payload capacity and long-range capabilities, suitable for intercontinental cargo transportation.
  • Airbus A330: Converted versions of the A330 aircraft serve as wide-body freighters, providing ample payload capacity and range for cargo charters.

Dedicated Cargo Aircraft

cargo air charter flight through the sky

These are aircraft purpose-built for cargo operations. They have specialized cargo loading systems, large cargo doors, and high payload capacity.

  • Boeing 747-8F: A cargo-specific variant of the 747, offering increased payload capacity and improved fuel efficiency compared to previous versions.
  • Airbus A330-200F: A dedicated freighter variant of the A330, optimized for cargo operations with a generous payload capacity and extended range.

Heavy-Lift Cargo Aircraft

Unloading wide body transport cargo aircraft

Heavy-lift cargo aircraft are specifically designed to transport oversized and heavy cargo. They have the capability to carry large, non-standard cargo that may not fit in standard freighters.

  • Antonov An-124 Ruslan: A heavy-lift cargo aircraft capable of transporting oversized and heavy cargoes, with a maximum payload capacity of around 150 tons. It is used for specialized outsize cargo charters.
  • Boeing 747 Dreamlifter: This aircraft features a unique hinged nose section that allows for easy loading and unloading of oversized cargo, namely large components used in aircraft manufacturing.


Helicopters are used for specialized cargo operations, such as delivering cargo to remote locations, offshore oil platforms, or emergency medical services. They offer vertical takeoff and landing capabilities that make them highly agile and with the need for a runway.

  • Sikorsky S-64 Skycrane: Heavy-lift helicopter commonly used for transporting smaller cargoes in industries like construction, firefighting, and logging.
  • Mil Mi-26: The world’s largest production helicopter, capable of carrying significant cargo loads and used in various heavy-lift operations.

Supersonic Cargo Aircraft

Although still in development, there are ongoing efforts to create supersonic cargo aircraft that can transport high-value or time-sensitive cargo at supersonic speeds. These aircraft could revolutionize air cargo transport in the future.

Availability & Accessibility

Inside a B777 freighter cargo air charter

The availability of specific aircraft types for charter can vary based on factors such as geographical location, demand, and fleet size of charter operators.

Not all aircraft types may be always readily available. Therefore, when selecting an air cargo charter aircraft, availability plays a significant role in determining the options that are accessible for a particular charter request.

Charter operators need to assess the availability of suitable aircraft within their network or through partnerships to fulfill the cargo transportation requirements.

  • Geographic Considerations: Some regions or destinations may have limited infrastructure or challenging terrains that restrict the accessibility of certain aircraft types. For example, airports with short runways, limited navigational aids, or remote locations may require aircraft with specific capabilities, such as turboprops or helicopters, for optimal accessibility. Factors like runway length, pavement strength, ground handling equipment, and customs facilities need to be considered to ensure that the selected aircraft can safely and efficiently operate in the desired locations.
  • Operational Considerations: Operational accessibility involves considering the availability of necessary support services and facilities required for the smooth execution of air cargo charters. This includes factors such as ground handling services, customs clearance procedures, cargo handling equipment, and maintenance facilities. The selected aircraft should be compatible with the existing infrastructure and operational capabilities of the departure and destination airports to ensure seamless cargo operations.
  • Airspace & Regulatory Accessibility: Air cargo charter aircraft selection must also take into account regulatory considerations and airspace restrictions. Different countries and regions have specific regulations regarding aircraft operations, noise restrictions, overflight permissions, and landing rights. Charter operators need to ensure that the selected aircraft type complies with the applicable regulations and that necessary permits and clearances can be obtained to operate the charter flights smoothly.

Taking the next step

With so many considerations, having an experienced air charter broker to advise you on the available options at any given time is a sensible choice.

Charter brokers have a deep understanding of the air cargo charter market and pricing dynamics. They can leverage their knowledge to negotiate competitive rates on your behalf. By analyzing various options, comparing quotes, and considering factors such as fuel prices, routing, and operational efficiencies, brokers can help you secure cost-effective solutions that align with your budget and cargo transport requirements.

If you have an air cargo charter enquiry or would like more information, get in touch with the dedicated Chapman Freeborn air cargo charter team [email protected]


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