The Ultimate Air Waybill (AWB) Guide: Functions, Features, & More

Air waybills are essential freight forwarding documents when you transport cargo via air. They have several uses and can even be used for customs clearance processes. 

But what exactly are they?

This article will explore
what an airway bill is,
the many functions of AWBs,
the format of AWBs, and answer three AWB FAQs

What Is an Air Waybill (AWB)?

An air waybill (AWB) is an essential, legally binding document used to transport goods internationally via air. It provides in-depth information about the shipment and allows for seamless cargo tracking.  

The AWB has several copies, one for each party involved in the shipment. This bill is also called an air consignment note and is a type of bill of lading. 

Although the air consignment note acts similarly to ocean bills of lading, it’s non-negotiable and provides less protection than bills of lading (more on this later). 

The Different Types of Air Waybill

There are two types of air waybills: Airline-specific AWB and neutral AWB.

  • Airline-specific AWBs — They include the details (name, logo, head office address, and contact details) of the air cargo carrier. These AWBs are issued on the carrier’s company form and must include a pre-printed air waybill number.

    They are subject to International Air Transport Association (IATA) regulations and international air conventions (Warsaw Convention, Hague amendment, Montreal Convention, etc.).
  • Neutral AWBs — They usually have a similar design to airline-specific AWBs. The difference is that they don’t include the carrier’s information and aren’t subject to IATA or air convention rules.

But wait, there’s also an electronic airway bill…
Let’s look into it.

What Is an Electronic Airway Bill?

Air waybills can now be generated and completed electronically. This is called an electronic airway bill (e-air waybill or eAWB). The electronic version communicates the same information as the paper AWBs.

But here’s the thing:

eAWBs have become the default contract of carriage for all air cargo shipments. Paper air waybill documents are still accepted, but the IATA and everyone else prefer eAWBs in most cases.

8 Functions of the AWB

The air waybill has many functions as a required document for air freight. 

Its functions include:

1. Serves as Evidence of Receipt of Goods 

Once the shipper delivers goods, you'll get a receipt as proof that the delivery was successful and in good condition. It also implies that the shipping instructions (as stated in the Shipper's Letter of Instructions) are acceptable. 

After delivery, the shipper receives the air waybill original copy as proof that the goods were accepted and as evidence of the contract of carriage. 

2. Relays Contact Information Among All Parties

It contains the contact information of all parties involved, like the consignor and consignee. 

3. Forms a Contract of Carriage Between Shipper and Carrier

Every original AWB has conditions of contract for the carriage documents. 

For example, the conditions should:

  • Ensure that both parties are clear on their responsibilities.
  • Clearly state the carrier’s liability limits concerning loss, delay, and damage.
  • Specify the conventions and laws that apply to the cargo.
  • State what processes one should follow when cargo is lost, damaged, or delayed.

4. Acts as a Freight Bill

The AWB also highlights the charges involved in the airfreight shipment process. 

It can act as a bill or invoice when accompanied by other required documents like the commercial invoice, packing list, certificate of origin, etc. The original air waybill can also be used for the carrier's accounting.

5. Serves as a Customs Declaration

Although customs authorities require various shipping documents when you conduct international trade. When you present the air waybill for customs clearance, it is evidence of the declared shipment value.

6. Provides a Description of The Goods

It includes the item description, quantity, weight, dimensions, and materials used in items and packaging. 

7. Guides the Handling and Delivery of Goods

The AWB can be a guide for handling goods since it contains the relevant handler instructions. 

8. Tracks the Shipment Using the AWB Number

AWB contains the AWB number, which you can use to track the shipment. Aside from providing a tracking number, it includes serial numbers and barcodes to identify the load electronically. 

Now that you know what the AWB can be used for, let’s discuss the layout of an air waybill. 

Format of an AWB

Each airline AWB must show the following: 

  • The carrier’s name
  • The head office address
  • Company logo
  • The air waybill number — an 11-digit number used to make bookings and track the shipment’s status and location.

In the top-left quadrant of your air waybill document, you’ll see detailed information on the shipper, consignee, agent, departure airport, and airport of destination.

The top-right section of the AWB will convey information for the airline. It’ll either be in the form of printed text and logos or manually-entered information. It’ll also contain customs information and the declared value for carriage.

The document's middle will contain information on the shipment contents, number of items, total charge, gross weight, chargeable weight, and nature and quantity of the goods. 

At the bottom of the air waybill, you’ll find the additional charges and taxes, a place for the shipper or agent to sign, and a section to enter the time, date, and location of execution.

Next, let’s explore how to get an AWB. 

How Do I Get an AWB?

As a customer, you’d typically get an AWB from the company you choose to handle your shipment. They’ll have a template for you to complete. 

But since eAWBs are the default contract of carriage now, this is how logistics companies can implement electronic air waybills: 

  1. Sign an electronic agreement with the IATA.
  2. Download and install the relevant software compatible with Cargo-XML or Cargo-IMP toolkits. 
  3. Ensure you have provided correct and accurate data. 
  4. Reach out to your airline partners and ensure they’re onboard and confirm the activation. 

Still have a few doubts?

Let’s discuss some FAQs about the airway bill and other related content.


1. Air Waybill vs. Bill of Lading: What’s the difference?

AWBs are unlike other bills of lading because they’re non-negotiable documents. Since it’s non-negotiable, the AWB is a contract for transportation and doesn’t cover the value of the merchandise.

What does this mean? 

It doesn’t specify what flight the air freight shipment will be on or when it'll reach its destination. It just accompanies the goods, and only authorized agents of the carrier, shipper, or receiver can sign it.

What about bills of lading? 

This is a legal document (also called a document of title) between the shipper of goods and the ocean freight carrier. It details the type, quantity, and destination airport of the goods. They also act as proof of receipt of the sea shipment when the goods are delivered.

2. What are hAWBs and mAWBs?

There are two types of AWBs, the Master Air Waybill and the House Air Waybill. 

A. House Air Waybill (hAWB)

This is an air shipment transport document. They’re issued and signed by a freight forwarder, which is evidence of the freight forwarder’s terms and conditions for the carriage of goods.

The main features of a house airway bill:

  • It is issued on a neutral AWB format.
  • They're usually published and signed by a freight forwarder without indicating any signing authority.
  • May/may not be subject to the rules of the IATA and one of the international air conventions (Warsaw Convention, Montreal Convention, Hague amendment, etc.)
  • States the terms and conditions of carriage from the perspective of the forwarder’s company.
  • It doesn’t contain the carriage contract of the actual carrier — the shipper shown on the house airway bill isn't a direct participant in the carriage agreement.  

B. Master Air Waybill (mAWB)

The air cargo carrier or agent issues and signs this air shipment transport document. It’s evidence of the terms and conditions of transporting goods over the carrier's routes. You can also refer to them as airline air waybills with pre-printed issuing carrier identification.

The main features of a master airway bill:

  • It is usually issued on an issuer carrier’s pre-printed airway bill form.
  • Issued and signed by the air carrier or agent on behalf of the carrier.
  • Is subject to IATA Rules and one of the international air conventions (Warsaw Convention, Hague amendment, Montreal Convention, etc.)
  • Signed by the actual air carrier and states the carriage’s terms and conditions; as a result, the consignee may have protection if the goods are damaged or lost in transit.

3. How Do You Manage eAWBs?

Luckily, using airfreight forwarding software can help you handle eAWBs. 

With an efficient software provider like Shipthis, you can:

Want a freight forwarding platform that does it all?

Check out Shipthis’s eAWB feature today!

Ready to Simplify and Streamline Handling Air Waybills?

Air waybills are essential to freight forwarding since they consolidate all the important information for transporting via air freight. Although there are software solutions that make the generation and completion of eAWBs effortless, it’s still vital that you know what they should contain. 

Interested in seeing your business take flight? 

Partner with Shipthis today and gain access to the most comprehensive freight forwarding software on the market. 

Book a free demo today.

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