Air waybill vs. bill of ladingGet familiar with these vital import and export documents.
In the world of shipping and logistics, understanding the differences between air waybills (AWBs) and bills of lading (BOLs) is crucial for businesses operating in the supply chain, ecommerce, or any other industry requiring transportation of goods. These documents, while serving similar purposes, have key distinctions that can impact the way shipments are handled, tracked, and delivered. This guide will break down the essentials of AWBs and BOLs, covering everything from their definitions and contents to their differences and electronic forms.
Before defining these documents separately, it is important to note that while these documents are not interchangeable, they are both important transport documents. Any shipment by air or sea will need one or the other because they both serve similar purposes with slight—but important—differences.
Note: Air waybills are actually a type of bill of lading; however, both are discussed as the two main types of transport documents. There are more BOL types, but since the order bill of lading is the most common, we will refer primarily to that BOL type in this guide.
Air waybills (AWB)
An AWB is a transport document issued by the carrier that accompanies air and ground shipments. It contains details about the shipment and provides tracking information. It also acts as a consignment note and shipment receipt.
An AWB can be paper or electronic. Most small package and integrated carriers accept electronic AWBs.
Bills of lading (BOL)
A BOL is a shipping document provided by the carrier that accompanies sea, train, and truck shipments. It contains detailed information about the contents of the shipment and also serves as a contract, receipt, and title document.
A BOL can be paper or electronic. Most small package and integrated carriers accept electronic BOLs.
Note: "Title” refers to ownership, meaning that possessing a title document can prove ownership of the shipment.
AWBs and BOLs are similiar but also have key differences. These are both outlined below.
Similarities - information AWBs and BOLs contain
The following is a list of information included on both types of documents:
- Shipper name
- Shipper address and contact information
- Carrier name
- Carrier address and contact or driver’s information (identification number, phone number, etc.)
- Consignee name (the person the package is being delivered to)
- Consignee address and contact information
- Port or airport of loading
- Port or airport of unloading
- Carrier vehicle’s name and identification number (ship, airplane, truck, train, etc.)
- Description of freight
- Condition of freight
- Identification marks on cargo
- Number of pieces, packages, or pallets
- Length, width, height, and weight of the shipment
- Payment information
- Terms of the contract
Other than the fact that their modes of transport (air and sea) differ, AWBs and BOLs have a few more addiontal key differences.
The table below outlines the important differences between the two documents, followed by an explanation of what each difference means. There is an explanation of each field below the table.
|Mode of transport||Air shipments||Sea, train, or truck shipments|
|Collection of goods||Original document not required||Original document required|
|Incoterms||All except Free on Board (FOB), Cost Insurance Freight (CIF), Free Alongside Ship (FAS), and Cost and Freight (CFR||All|
|Copies required||Varies by carrier||3 original and 3 copies|
|Time of issuance from carrier||After departure from airport||After departure from port or station|
|Governing rules||Warsaw Convention, Hague Amendment, Montreal Convention||Hague Rules, The Hague-Visby Rules, and U.S. COGSA (U.S. Carriage of Goods by Sea Act 1936)|
|Shipment type (typically)||Business-to-consumer (B2C) and business-to-business (B2B)||B2B|
Mode of transport
AWB - For air shipments
BOL - For sea, train, and truck shipments
AWB (non-negotiable) - The AWB is a specific form stating that the goods are to be delivered to a specific consignee. It is a contract of transportation, not a title document (a document proving ownership of the shipment).
BOL (negotiable) - The BOL acts as a title document. The consignee can also endorse the BOL with a third party’s name, allowing ownership to be transferred and the shipment delivered to them instead. It acts as a contract of both transportation and ownership.
Collection of goods
AWB - A consignee can either pick up or have the goods delivered to them by providing a form of identification that proves they are the consignee listed on the sender’s AWB. They do not need the original AWB to collect the goods.
BOL - Receivers must submit the original copy of the BOL to prove ownership in order to collect the goods.
AWB - AWBs are used with EXW, FCA, CIP, CPT, DAP, DDP, and DPU Incoterms. They are not used with FAS, CFR, FOB, or CIF Incoterms.
BOL - BOLs can be used with all Incoterms.
AWB - AWB shipments must be accompanied by multiple copies of the document. The number and the format (paper or electronic) of the copies vary by carrier.
BOL - BOL shipments must be accompanied by 3 originals and 3 copies.
Time of issuance
AWB - AWBs are issued by the carrier when the goods have been inspected and the cargo plane has taken off from the departure airport.
BOL - BOLs are issued by the carrier when the goods have been inspected and the cargo ship departs from the loading port.
Typical shipment type
AWB - Consumer shipments are most often sent by air and ground because they usually do not warrant a container-level load requiring sea transportation.
BOL - Commercial (B2B) shipments are typically sent via sea vessel, train, or truck due to the large size of the order.
The functions of AWBs and BOLs
|Document type||Acts as a shipment receipt||Acts as a transportation contract||Acts as a document of title||Can be electronic|