Many US airlines began their existence carrying mail across the States. While there were airborne postal services as early as 1911, commercial operations started with the first revenue airmail flight on February 15, 1926, after the Contract Air Mail Act of 1925 handed over mail service to private contractors. Correspondence from New York could now arrive on the West Coast in two days instead of the five it took for it to get there by rail.
Meanwhile, the United States Postal Service (USPS), also known as the Post Office, U.S. Mail, or simply Postal Service, has become one of the world’s largest delivery services. It reaches every address in the nation, including 160 million residences, businesses, and Post Office Boxes (PO Boxes). However, it does not operate any aircraft. Let’s take a closer look at why.
To understand the matter better, let’s first take a look at what kind of organization the USPS is. While it is an independent agency of the executive branch of the United States federal government, it receives no tax dollars for its operations. This means that everything it makes and runs is based on the sale of postage and its products and services for funding. It has 34,000 retail locations and a yearly operating revenue of around $77 billion (2021). Moreover, it delivers about 48% of the world’s mail and employs over 630,000 people.
USPS is well recognized for its cars and vans that go out and deliver mail. However, cars and trucks are not the most efficient form of transporting a large bulk of mail for longer distances. But, as stated, the USPS does not have its own aircraft it can call upon to get letters and other paper documentation from one coast to another on time. Nevertheless, as we mentioned in the first paragraph, transporting mail by air is a rich part of USPS history. Let’s take a short trip down memory lane.
The history of airmail
In 1775, Benjamin Franklin was appointed as the first Postmaster General by the Continental Congress. Some 135 years later, in 1910, Frank Hitchcock, the Postmaster General at the time, flew in an aircraft in Baltimore. Of course, this was back in the infancy of aviation, so the aircraft were small, had open cockpits, and had none of the modern-day conveniences. Nevertheless, Mr Hitchcock was a fan, and the next year, he authorized US mail flights. Eight pilots were sworn in as “aeroplane mail carriers” at an event.
At about the same time, airmail became a thing also on the other side of the Atlantic. The first official British airmail flight took off on September 9, 1911, organized and paid for by the British government and part of the celebrations of the coronation of George V. France and Italy soon followed while Germany’s first official airmail flight took off the year after.
Over the next few years, the USPS would experiment with many more experimental flights. Impressed by the results, in 1912, postal officials began lobbying congress for funding. In 1916, Congress authorized the use of $50,000 for airmail experiments. This is equivalent to over $1.3 million today.
In 1917, Congress appropriated $100,000 to establish an experimental airmail service. At first, the Army had wanted to operate the airmail service, as this would allow its pilots more cross-country flying experience. The Postmaster General and Secretary of War reached an agreement in which the Army Signal Corps would lend its planes and pilots for airmail service. Finally, in 1918, an airmail service began between New York and Washington D.C. In 1918, Benajmin B. Lipsner, Superintendent of Aerial Mail Service, stated the following,
“The air mail route is the first step toward the universal commercial use of the aeroplane.”
As we now know, he was certainly not wrong. Two years later, the USPS expanded airmail to transcontinental routes with various stops in between. The agency also worked to install radio stations at more airfields to give pilots the latest weather information. By 1924, the USPS was looking at flying airmail overnight.
Photo: Getty Images
Finally, in 1925, the USPS received permission from Congress to contract airmail service from commercial aviation companies. It was a hit as commercial airlines kept on flying mail to more and more destinations. By 1927, all airmail was carried under contract. Airmail expanded internationally as well in the late 1920s and into the 1930s. By the 1960s, mail had also made the jump into the jet age.
Despite the services of airmail being outsourced to commercial operators, some may, however, recall having seen aircraft in a special USPS livery. However, these were planes operated under contract, and not officially owned by the agency. These, however, were aircraft operated under a contract that had the USPS livery on it and were not official USPS-owned aircraft.
What about today?
The USPS continues to contract out airmail flying. It negotiates contracts with commercial airlines to transport mail. This includes passenger carriers. In fact, some early airlines began their commercial career by flying airmail services. United Airlines was one such carrier. Western Airlines was another.
A few years ago, Amazon began quietly transporting cargo on its planes for the USPS, something analysts say may signal greater ambitions for the e-commerce retail giant to take up the competition with other freight operators such as FedEx. Amazon also reportedly has a contract in place with ULCC Sun Country Airlines to move USPS cargo on behalf of Amazon.
There is a very good reason for the USPS to avoid operating its own aircraft. First and foremost, it comes down to economics. Buying an aircraft, filling it with fuel, hiring pilots, and getting a ground game set up at airports is an expensive business, and mail is not a highly profitable sector.
If the USPS had its own fleet of planes, it would likely be flying them only to a few different destinations, mostly to where they have large distribution centers where mail can move from plane to truck. This would, undoubtedly, lead to delays in shipping.
Most mail that the USPS transports is small in size and mostly comprised of items such as letters and packages. These are all going to different destinations and do not yield as much revenue as larger pieces of cargo. So, flying a cargo aircraft across the country carrying only mail would be a massive waste of money, and the USPS would need to then optimize as a shipping company to make things work, which is rife with competition as is.
So, with small pieces of mail going to a variety of different destinations, it is much easier for the USPS to reach agreements with airlines to fly packages where they need to go. Rather than trying to fill up a large cargo jet like a Boeing 777F or even 737F, for that matter, with low-revenue mail, it is cheaper and more efficient to fly that mail on a passenger jet, where an airline that already has the ground operations and the route set up and will probably have some room for a box or bag of mail.
During the pandemic, some airlines were using entire aircraft to fly cargo as route networks across the country were cut, which meant ample space for mail to, for once, travel in the passenger cabin. Alaska Airlines was one such example. In addition to passenger airlines, the USPS also contracts with cargo airlines like FedEx.
Photo: Getty Images
Will the USPS ever fly its own planes?
Given the economics of operations and the agency’s specific mission profile, it is unlikely. Setting up an airline is incredibly expensive and comes with plenty of logistical headaches. The USPS has everything set up with this outsourcing contract system – and it seems to work pretty well for them.
And while we may all be glad for the speedy delivery of our mail and packages across the country, letters and smaller items are not exactly the ideal cargo to fly on an aircraft. Cargo carriers will normally transport much heavier items alongside the mail they are contracted to carry, and thus it makes sense to pick up a bag or two of lightweight freight.
On the other hand, while it may have been the origin story of commercial airline operations, flying mail-only planes today would be incredibly expensive. If USPS was to acquire its own fleet, of whatever size, it would most likely be running at a loss. And without any funding support, this would not be sustainable for very long.
The USPS operating its own aircraft would also mean that the mail system becomes more inefficient, as the USPS would have to optimize its route network for airmail to run through major distribution hubs. This would slow down delivery times, as some mail might have to transit in another city instead of flying nonstop point-to-point on a commercial airline.
Do you think the USPS should fly its own aircraft? Let us know in the comments!