views updated Jun 27 2018


AIRMAIL. Following fifty-two experimental flights by the Post Office Department in 1911 and 1912, the first extended test of airmail service was made in May 1918, when the U.S. Army and the Post Office Department together set up an experimental line between New York and Washington, D.C., using army pilots. After three months, the department assumed entire control of the line and employed civilian aviators. This route was too short to give the plane much advantage over the railway and did not continue long. Other disconnected lines were tried, between New York and Cleveland, Cleveland and Chicago, and Chicago and Omaha, but all had the same fault—they were too short to attract mail at high rates. In 1920 the department installed a service between New York and San Francisco, with the planes flying only by daylight and the mail being transferred at dusk to railway trains and rushed on, to take to the air again early next morning. On 1 July 1924 a continuous, day-and-night service across the continent began operations. In 1926 the department began to contract entirely with private corporations to handle all airmail. Branch lines and north-and-south lines were rapidly added. In 1930, when the postal service designated two new routes—New York to Los Angeles via St. Louis and Los Angeles to Atlanta—there were only two bids for the former contract and one for the latter. Charging that there had been collusion among airline owners in the bidding, Postmaster General James A. Farley on 9 February 1934 canceled all airmail contracts, and for four months army planes carried the mail while an official investigation was conducted. There were several fatal accidents by army fliers. New contracts were signed in June, and the service, which by this time covered most of the United States and connected with lines to Canada, the West Indies, Mexico, and Central and South America, was returned to private planes.

In 1935 regular mail service was established across the Pacific, between San Francisco and Manila, along with transatlantic service between New York and London beginning in 1939. In 1948 the postal service began to offer both domestic and international parcel post air service. In 1953 a private company—United Parcel Service (UPS)—began to compete directly with the United States Postal Service as a "common carrier," offering two-day airmail delivery service to major urban areas on the East and West coasts. It expanded its service steadily, so that it operated in all fifty states by 1978. Federal Express, which soon grew to be UPS's major private competitor, began operations in 1973 and expanded rapidly, along with UPS, after the federal government deregulated air cargo in 1977—the same year that the U.S. Postal Service abolished airmail as a separate rate category and established "express mail" as its new category of rush delivery. In the 1980s both private carriers expanded their fleets of airplanes and added both overnight and international delivery service, and in the 1990s they began to offer computerized tracking services while continuing to expand their delivery areas.


Glines, Carroll. Airmail: How It All Began. Blue Ridge Summit, Penn.: Aero, 1990.

Harlow, Alvin F. Old Post Bags. New York: D. Appleton, 1928.

Holmes, Donald B. Air Mail: An Illustrated History. New York: Clarkson Potter, 1981.

Leary, William M., ed. Pilots' Directions: The Transcontinental Airway and Its History. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1990.

Wisniewski, Stanley. "Multinational Enterprises in the Courier Service Industry." International Labour Organization Multilateral Enterprises Programme, working paper no. 1, Geneva 1997.

Alvin F.Harlow/a. r.; c. w.

See alsoAir Transportation and Travel ; Courier Services ; Postal Service, U.S.


views updated May 29 2018

air·mail / ˈe(ə)rˌmāl/ • n. a system of transporting mail by aircraft, typically overseas. ∎  a letter carried by aircraft.• v. [tr.] send (mail) by aircraft: a recent letter that I airmailed to Miss Sifton.