Export/Import Updates!
December 2, 2021

Air Waybill (AWB): What is its Role in Air Cargo Transport?

An air waybill (AWB) – also called an airway consignment note or dispatch note – is a document that accompanies goods shipped by air. The International Air Transport Association (IATA) defines an air waybill as “a critical air cargo document that constitutes the contract of carriage between the ‘shipper’ and the ‘carrier’ [airline]”. The IATA is the global regulatory authority that prescribes a standard format of the air waybill.

Introduced in 2010, the electronic air waybill (e-AWB) has become the default document since 2019, digitising and simplifying the air cargo process. However, paper AWBs are still issued if and when they are “required due to applicable international treaties, national law, or as bilaterally agreed between the parties”, according to IATA.

In this piece, we delve deep into what an air waybill constitutes, what its various functions are, who issues it, who needs it, and how many types of it exist. Read on.

What information does an air waybill contain?

An air waybill is a form in which the following information must be provided:

  • Name and full address of the consignee (importer)
  • Name and full address of the shipper (exporter)
  • Three-letter IATA code for origin airport
  • Three-letter IATA code for destination airport
  • Full route of transport
  • Shipment value of goods
  • Description of goods
  • Gross weight of goods
  • Dimensions of the goods
  • Number of items in the consignment
  • Special handling instructions, if any – for example, refrigeration required for perishable commodity
  • Terms and conditions of the carrier (airline) – for example, liability limits and claims procedures
  • Applicable shipping charges
  • Transport insurance details
Information that goes on an air waybill (AWB)
What Goes on an Air Waybill

What are the functions of an air waybill?

An air waybill is a legal document that serves as:

  • Evidence of contract of carriage between the shipper and carrier (airline)  
  • Proof of receipt of goods for shipment by the carrier
  • Freight bill, because it details the freight and ancillary charges involved  
  • Source of contact information for all parties involved  
  • Guide for handling, dispatching, and delivering the goods
  • Customs declaration document

Format of an air waybill

The IATA distributes two types of air waybills:

  • An airline-specific AWB, which contains the airline’s name, logo, the address of its headquarters, and its air waybill number.
  • A neutral AWB, which has the same format and layout as the above but without the airline-specific information.

An air waybill is issued in sets of eight with different colour codes. The first three count as original bills and the remaining five as copies. In the order of their placement and colour code, they are:

1. Green (original) – Carrier (issuing authority) copy  

2. Pink (original) – Consignee copy

3. Blue (original) – Shipper copy

4. Brown (copy) – Receipt and proof of delivery

5. 6. 7. & 8. White (copies) – To be kept by the shipper and used for various purposes  

Each air waybill also comes with a unique 11-digit number that is divided into three sections. The first three digits are related to the carrier, the next seven are the bill’s serial number, and the last digit is calculated by dividing the serial number by seven. This is called the check digit.      

Sample image of an air waybill
Sample Image of an Air Waybill

Credit: aacargo.com

Air waybill – Who issues it? Who fills it up?

The air waybill is filled by the shipper (or an agent or freight forwarder working on their behalf) and issued by the airline. Here we trace the steps involved in issuing and receiving an air waybill by the various parties involved:

Step 1: Carrier issues the air waybill on receipt of the goods and completion of export customs formalities.

Step 2: Shipper receives original copy of the AWB after handover of goods to the carrier.

Step 3: One set of the AWB travels with the goods for transit reference requirement and import customs clearance. The shipper may also send the AWB through their bank to the consignee if the transaction is under a Letter of Credit.  

Step 4: On arrival of the goods at destination, the consignee (or their agent) approaches the local office of the carrier and collects their copy of the air waybill.        

Types of airway bills

In a typical transaction, the exporter hires a freight forwarder to take care of shipping the goods to the importer. The forwarder receives the goods from the exporter, passes them on to the carrier, and ensures they are delivered to the importer. In such a situation, two types of air waybills are issued. They are:  

  • House Air Waybill (HAWB): This is issued by the freight forwarder to the exporter on receipt of goods for transportation by air. In this document, the exporter is named as the shipper and the importer as the consignee.    
  • Master Air Waybill (MAWB): Once the cargo is transferred to the main carrier and the export customs formalities are completed, the carrier issues a master air waybill to the freight forwarder. In this document, the freight forwarder is named as the shipper while the forwarder’s representative at the port of destination is named as the consignee. This representative makes the final delivery to the importer.      
HAWB & MAWB: Who issues them, and to whom?
HAWB & MAWB: Who Issues Them, and to Whom?

AWB mistakes can be costly

As the exporter, it is important to fill up your air waybill accurately or ensure that your freight forwarder does the same. Any irregularities can have various consequences for you:

  • Your cargo could get held up by customs, resulting in a delay and the expenses associated with it (such as demurrage, detention, and storage fees).
  • You could be held liable for any damages suffered by the carrier or individuals involved in the shipment process as a result of your misdeclaration.

Tips on filling your AWB

Here’s a simple checklist on filling your air waybill and saving yourself a ton of trouble later on:  

  • Complete every part of the form and do it correctly.
  • When filling the form by hand, press hard on your ball-point pen and write cleanly and clearly.
  • Take out a clear print of the bill.
  • In the contact information fields, enter full addresses, including ZIP/postal codes.
  • Make sure that your shipment information – such as weight, dimension, value, HS code – are correct.
  • In the special handling section, point out if your shipment contains dangerous goods by ticking the appropriate box.
  • Finally, don’t forget to sign and date the AWB. Remember, an AWB is valid only if it has the signatures of both the shipper and carrier. In case of a missing signature, the carrier can refuse to accept liability for the goods.    
Types and Formats of Air Waybills
Types and Formats of Air Waybills  

Track your goods with your AWB

Apart from the uses mentioned above, an air waybill has one particularly useful function. Exporters and importers can use the 11-digit AWB number to track their shipments. This is because once an AWB is issued, the carrier will only identify your goods by their AWB number.

To track your shipment, all you need to do is visit the airline’s air cargo tracking page. There, enter your AWB number in the correct field and you will receive the latest available status of your cargo.

You can find the AWB number located prominently on all copies of your air waybill and in any emails and messages the carrier might have sent you regarding your shipment. Alternatively, you can call your carrier and ask for the AWB number, which they will provide after you have answered their questions regarding your shipment.

Air waybill versus Bill of lading

Those of you who ship by sea are familiar with the bill of lading (B/L). An air waybill is the air cargo equivalent of a bill of lading. However, the two are more different than similar.

The main difference is that unlike a bill of lading, an air waybill is NOT a document of title to goods. This means that an AWB is not proof of ownership of the goods being shipped. It is simply a contract for transportation of the goods.

Due to this aspect, the AWB is also a non-negotiable instrument unlike a bill of lading. What this means is that an AWB does not transfer ownership of the goods. As a result, air waybills offer less protection than bills of lading.  

Another key difference is that an AWB does not specify the exact flight in which the goods will be shipped or the date on which the cargo will arrive at its destination.    

Air Waybill versus Bill of Lading

To know more about bill of lading, its uses and types, click here  

Editorial Team
Editorial Team
Customer success manager
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