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An air waybill (AWB) or air consignment note is a receipt issued by an international airline for goods and an evidence of the contract of carriage, but it is not a document of title to the goods. Hence, the air waybill is non-negotiable.

The air waybill is the most important document issued by a carrier either directly or through its authorised agent. It is a non-negotiable transport document. It covers transport of cargo from airport to airport. By accepting a shipment an IATA cargo agent is acting on behalf of the carrier whose air waybill is issued.

Air waybills have eleven digit numbers which can be used to make bookings, check the status of delivery, and current position of the shipment.

Air waybills are issued in 8 sets of different colours. The first three copies are classified as originals. The first original, Green in colour, is the Issuing Carrier's copy. The second, coloured Pink, is the Consignee's Copy. The third, coloured Blue, is the Shipper's copy. A fourth Brown copy acts as the Delivery Receipt, or proof of delivery. The other three copies are white.


There are several purposes that an air waybill serves, but its main functions are:

A. Contract of Carriage

Behind every original of the Air Waybill are conditions of contract for carriage.

B. Evidence of Receipt of Goods

When the shipper delivers goods to be forwarded, he will get a receipt. The receipt is proof that the shipment was handed over in good order and condition and also that the shipping instructions, as contained in the Shipper's Letter of Instructions, are acceptable. After completion, an original copy of the air waybill is given to the shipper as evidence of the acceptance of goods and as proof of contract of carriage

C. Freight Bill

The air waybill may be used as a bill or invoice together with supporting documents since it may indicate charges to be paid by the consignee, charges due to the agent or the carrier. An original copy of the air waybill is used for the carrier's accounting

D. Certificate of Insurance

The air waybill may also serve as an evidence if the carrier is in a position to insure the shipment and is requested to do so by the shipper.

E. Customs declaration

Although customs authorities require various documents like a commercial invoice, packing list, etc. the air waybill too is proof of the freight amount billed for the goods carried and may be needed to be presented for customs clearance

The format of the air waybill has been designed by IATA and these can be used for both domestic as well as international transportation. These are available in two forms, viz. the airline logo equipped air waybill and the neutral air waybill. Usually, airline air waybills are distributed to IATA cargo agents by IATA airlines. The air waybills show:

  • the carrier's name

  • its head office address

  • its logo

  • the pre printed eleven digit air waybill number

It is also possible to complete an air waybill through a computerised system. Agents all over the world are now using their own in-house computer systems to issue airlines' and freight forwarders' own air waybills. IATA cargo agents usually hold air waybills of several carriers. However, it gradually became difficult to accommodate these pre-numbered air waybills with the printed identification in the computer system. Therefore a neutral air waybill was created. Both types of air waybills have the same format and layout. However, the neutral air waybill does not bear any pre-printed individual name, head office address, logo and serial number.


The air waybill is a contract, i.e. an agreement enforceable by law. To become a valid contract it has to be signed by the shipper or his agent and by the carrier or its authorised agent. Although the same individual or organisation may act on behalf of both the carrier and the shipper, the air waybill must be signed twice one each in the respective carrier and shipper boxes. Both signatures may be of the same person. This also implies that the air waybill should be issued immediately upon receipt of the goods and letter in instructions from the shipper.

As long as the air waybill is neither dated nor signed twice, the goods do not fall within the terms of the conditions of contract and therefore the carrier will not accept any responsibility for the goods. The validity of the air waybill and thus the contract of carriage expires upon delivery of the shipment to the consignee (or his authorised agent)

Responsibility for Completion

The air waybill is a contract - an agreement between the shipper and the carrier. The agent only acts as an intermediary between the shipper and carrier. The air waybill is also a contract of good faith. This means that the shipper will be responsible for the haul also be liable for all the damage suffered by the airline or any person due to irregularity, incorrectness or incompleteness of insertions on the air waybill, even if the air waybill has been completed by an agent or the carrier on his behalf.

When the shipper signs the AWB or issues the letter of instructions he simultaneously confirms his agreement to the conditions of contract.

Definition of the term Not Negotiable

Waybills are non-negotiable documents unlike bills of lading which are negotiable. The words non-negotiable are printed clearly at the top of the air waybill. This means that the air waybill is a contract for transportation only and does not represent (the value of) merchandise mentioned in the box nature and quantity of goods. The ocean bill of lading, if negotiated, may represent (the value of) the goods and must be endorsed by the party ultimately accepting the goods. Although the AWB is a non-negotiable document, it can be used as a means of payment. This can be done only through the intermediary of a bank and only when the carriage is subject to a letter of credit. The air waybill executed according to the terms of a letter of credit allows the shipper to present the original of the air waybill to the bank and collect the billed value of the shipped goods from the bank. The amount paid by the bank to the shipper will be debited to the consignee who ordered the goods. At the destination the carrier will only hand over the goods to the consignee on receipt of a bank release order from the consignee's bankers.

The goods in the air consignment are consigned directly to the party (the consignee) named in the letter of credit (L/C). Unless the goods are consigned to a third party like the issuing bank, the importer can obtain the goods from the carrier at destination without paying the issuing bank or the consignor. Therefore, unless a cash payment has been received by the exporter or the buyer's integrity is unquestionable, consigning goods directly to the importer is risky.

For air consignment to certain destinations, it is possible to arrange payment on a COD (cash on delivery) basis and consign the goods directly to the importer. The goods are released to the importer only after the importer makes the payment and complies with the instructions in the AWB.

In air freight, the exporter (the consignor) often engages a freight forwarder or consolidator to handle the forwarding of goods. The consignor provides a Shipper's Letter of Instructions which authorizes the forwarding agent to sign certain documents (e.g. the AWB) on behalf of the consignor.

The air waybill must indicate that the goods have been accepted for carriage, and it must be signed or authenticated by the carrier or the named agent for or on behalf of the carrier. The signature or authentication of the carrier must be identified as carrier, and in the case of agent signing or authenticating, the name and the capacity of the carrier on whose behalf the agent signs or authenticates must be indicated.

International air waybills that contain consolidated cargo are called master air waybills (MAWB). MAWBs have additional papers called house air waybills (HAWB). Each HAWB contains information of each individual shipment (consignee, contents, etc.) within the consolidation. International AWBs that are not consolidated (only one shipment in one bill) are called simple AWBs. A house air waybill can also be created by a freight forwarder. When the shipment is booked, the airline issues a MAWB to the forwarder, who in turn issues their own house air waybill to the customer.

House and Master AWBs and BLs

A freight forwarder offering a consolidation service, will issue its own air waybill or bill of lading. From now on AWB will be used to refer to both. This is called a Forwarder's or House AWB with its equivalent House BL. These act as contracts of carriage between the shipper and the forwarder, who in this case becomes a Deemed Carrier. The forwarder in turn enters into contracts with one or more carriers, often using more than one mode of transportation. The contract of carriage between the forwarder and carrier is called a Master Air Way Bill (MAWB or MBL). A House Air Waybill (HAWB) or Bill of Lading (HBL) could act as a multimodal transport document.

What are the differences between AWB & B/L

Main differences between an air waybill and a bill of lading can be grouped under following articles: 

Document of title, issuance time, how many originals and copies issued, mode of transport, applicable incoterms, governing international regulations. 

Differences Between Air Waybill and Bill of Lading
Air Waybill(AWB)Bill of Lading(B/L)
Non NegotiableNegotiable (If issued to order of…)
Air waybill should be issued after the complete consignment has been receivedBill of lading should be issued after consignment has been shipped on board a vessel and the same vessel
Issued in at least 9 copiesIssued in full set (3 originals/3 copies)
Should be used with air shipmentsShould be used with sea shipments
Should not be used with FAS,FOB,CFR and CIF IncotermsCan be used with all incoterms defined in incoterms 2010 rules
Subject to Warsaw Convention,Hague amendment,Montreal ConventionSubject to Hague Rules,The Hague-Visby Rules and US COGSA (US Carriage of Goods by   Sea Act 1936)

1.Document of Title:

Bill of lading, when issued in negotiable form, represents title to the goods. For this reason at least one original copy of the bill of lading must be surrendered to the carrier's nominated agent at the port of discharge in order to collect the goods.

Air waybill, on the other hand, is always a non-negotiable transport document. Buyers could collect the consignment from the carrier at the airport of destination by simply proving their identities against the company information stated on the consignee part of the air waybill.

2.Issuance Time: 

Bill of lading should be issued by the carrier, after the goods shipped on board a vessel and the vessel departures from the port of loading. 

Air waybill should be issued by the air cargo carrier, after the complete consignment has been received by the carrier and the aircraft departures from the airport of departure. 

3.How Many Originals and Copies Issued:

It is a standard practice in international container transportation to issue bills of lading in full set, 3 originals and 3 copies.

Air waybills, on the other hand, issued by the air cargo carrier in 9 originals.

On below figure, you can find how many air waybills issued per each air shipment and how all these copies will be distributed among the various parties of that particular transaction.

4.Mode of Transport: 

Bill of lading should be used with port-to-port sea shipments, whereas air waybill should be used with air shipments.

5.Applicable Incoterms: 

Bill of lading is a transport document, which is issued in sea shipments. According to Incoterms 2010 rules all incoterms can be used with sea shipments. On the contrary, air waybill is a transport document, which is issued in air shipments and FAS, FOB, CFR and CIF incoterms cannot be used with air shipments according to Incoterms 2010 rules.

6.Governing International Regulations: 

Bill of lading and air waybill are issued subject to different governing international rules. 

Governing International Regulations of Air Waybill: Warsaw Convention, Hague amendment, Montreal Convention. 

Governing International Regulations of Bill of Lading: Hague Rules, The Hague-Visby Rules and US COGSA (US Carriage of Goods by Sea Act 1936).

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