The end of United States domestic airmail service

By Ken Lawrence

Figure 1. This cover from a 1971 test mailing illustrates how the business-minded United States Post Office Department and Postal Service transition management team tried to identify and overcome service bottlenecks and inefficiencies to provide better service for customers. The postmark and docketing verified that this airmail envelope posted at the end of the day in Las Vegas, Nev., Aug. 18, 1971, arrived at the Stockton, Calif., sectional center facility at 4:10 a.m. the next day.

Figure 2. The 1972 National Parks Centennial set of commemorative stamps included the 11¢ City of Refuge stamp inscribed AIR MAIL as an inviting incentive for mailers to use the service.

Figure 3. This October 24, 1972, airmail cover from Puunene, Hawaii, to Greenbelt, Md., franked with a colorful 11¢ Sapporo Winter Olympic Games airmail commemorative stamp, illustrates how the market-oriented Postal Service attempted to add visual and cultural appeal to domestic airmail in the early 1970s.

Figure 4. Postal historian Henry W. Beecher mailed this July 17, 1976, insured airmail cover from Medford to Portland, Ore., as a record of the 17¢ domestic airmail rate that he considered unlikely to be used except perhaps as insured mail. Although Beecher created this cover to document the rate, insured airmail had practical value for stamp dealers to send approvals and purchased material to customers, so other surviving examples ought to exist.

Figure 5. The parcel attached to this Official Mail tag qualified for space-available air transport, the meaning of the large SAM handstamped endorsement, from a location in the Persian/Arabian Gulf to Battle Creek, Mich. The item was mailed Nov. 13, 1991, from Fleet Post Office AE 09501.

When the United States Postal Service superseded the old Post Office Department July 1, 1971, President Richard M. Nixon’s press office heralded the change as a switch from an allegedly bureaucratic, obsolete cabinet-level government operation to a more nimble, autonomous, efficient business enterprise.

Forty-odd years later that sentence might strain younger readers’ credulity, but there’s little doubt that the first generation of USPS managers, led by Postmaster General Winton M. Blount, pursued their mission with zeal, having begun their search for problems to overcome even before the POD’s last ties to tradition had been severed.

In anticipation of the transition, Congress had raised domestic postal rates May 16, which boosted revenue for the first phase of quasi-business operation and postponed the day of reckoning in the event that reorganizing mail service as a profitable business (or at least as a break-even business) proved to be more difficult than its advocates had anticipated.

The domestic airmail letter rate rose from 10¢ to 11¢ per ounce as the first-class surface letter rate rose from 6¢ to 8¢ per ounce. In choosing between the two most important categories of business mail, users paid a substantial premium for intercity transport by air.

Was the service they purchased worth the extra cost?

Perhaps to quell such doubts, the Postal Service announced its goal to deliver 95 percent of locally addressed mail and 95 percent of ZIP-coded airmail letters addressed to out-of-town destinations within a 600-mile radius of their origin, on the next day after mailing.

To many observers, those aims seemed remarkably similar to ones previously announced by the bureaucrats of the old POD.

Prior Experience Combining Surface and Airmail

As long ago as 1960, first-class letters had been treated as airmail between major cities on a space-available basis, while mail between 11 designated cities — New York City; Washington, D.C.; Chicago, Ill.; San Francisco, Los Angeles, and San Diego, Calif.; Jacksonville, Tampa, and Miami, Fla.; Portland, Ore.; and Seattle Wash. — had been pouched in bright green nylon mailbags to denote expedited handling.

Following that example, in April 1971, the Postal Service distributed bright orange pouches for air transport of ZIP-coded first-class mail between major cities with the aim of overnight service.

Also in the 1960s, the Vietnam War had aroused expectations for expedited transport of every class of mail to members of the armed forces in combat zones. Domestic-rate parcel mail weighing not more than 5 pounds and measuring not more than 60 inches in length and girth combined addressed to Army and Navy post offices overseas qualified for space-available (SAM) air transport at no extra charge.

Jan. 7, 1968, brought parcel airlift (PAL) service for pieces that weighed up to 30 pounds mailed to military addresses, at a flat surcharge rate of $1 per parcel in addition to surface postage. The multicolor $1 Airlift stamp (Scott 1341) was issued April 4 of that year to pay the surcharge fee. These services were in effect when the USPS was born.

1971 Airmail Transit Test Mail

Between May and September 1971, Blount’s scientific management team conducted extensive tests to evaluate the overnight efficiency of intercity airmail deposited in dedicated collection boxes by 4 p.m.

Customer service officers posted approximately 100,000 test envelopes per week, which required the delivery office to record the arrival time and to report any problems encountered en route.

Figure 1 illustrates a cover from one of those tests, mailed Aug. 18 at Las Vegas and docketed at 4:10 the following morning at the Stockton, Calif., SCF (the sectional center facility, where mail for the town and the surrounding area was processed).

The envelope is a surcharged red 10¢+(1¢) Jet Liner embossed stamped envelope (Scott UC45) with a printed form on which the recipient office’s clerk recorded the arrival time, signed it, and passed it along to a supervisor for an additional signature. The supervisor returned it to USPS Customer Service headquarters for evaluation.

The 2011 United Postal Stationery Society Catalog of 20th and 21st Century Stamped Envelopes and Wrappers of the United States lists this envelope and other test forms adapted from different airmail envelope issues in a chapter titled “Test Envelopes; Official Use.” The entire shown here is No. AMO3, valued at $150 in used condition.

Postal Service announcements concerning this “airmail improvement plan,” which had begun as the POD was in transition to becoming the USPS, claimed that these tests verified a 95 percent success rate, but critics noted that the reported results were invalid because postal employees could easily spot the special envelopes in transit and give them favored treatment.

Independent test mailings conducted by the Associated Press between AP bureau offices in major cities showed significantly poorer results, with an average of two days between posting and delivery, and only 50 percent achieving the next-day goal.

A Postal Service news release stated that use of the test envelopes had ended Sept. 20, followed by hand-addressed or typewritten envelopes that resembled customers’ mail, but postal stationery specialist William H. Maisel has reported examples of the test envelopes with October cancellation dates.

Promoting and Marketing Airmail, 1971-73

To enhance public awareness of the airmail improvement plan, post offices had deployed Airmail Only collection boxes, which gained visibility and prominence on and after Aug. 30, 1971, because they were repainted with white tops set off from the blue lower sections by a red band, and decorated with decals showing a red jet plane outline on a white background, and the word AIRMAIL in tall bold letters on reflective tape.

Customers were told that mail deposited in an Airmail Only collection box by 4 p.m. would be delivered the next day to destinations within 600 miles, and the second day to more distant destinations. Although independent tests continued to show that the ambitious goals were met only about half the time, the Postal Service marketing team was undaunted.

On Jan. 1, 1972, Elmer T. Klassen, a former president of American Can Co., succeeded Blount to become the first postmaster general appointed by the USPS board of governors rather than by the president of the United States, selected for his business experience rather than his political connections.

From August to October 1972, as part of a nationwide “Serving America” promotion, airmail again became the featured subject, advertised by direct-mail flyers and post office lobby displays, augmented by airline ads and billboards that echoed the same themes, under the slogan “Your 3-cent Insurance Policy.” (A premium of 3¢ per ounce was charged for airmail over the cost of first-class surface mail.)

Also to promote greater use of airmail, in 1972 and 1973, the Postal Service issued three sets of commemorative stamps that included airmail values: the National Parks Centennial issue (Scott 1448-1454 and C84), the Olympic Winter Games issue (1480-1482 and C85), and the Progress in Electronics issue (1500-1502 and C86).

Each set comprised a 6¢ stamp to meet the domestic surface postcard rate, an 8¢ stamp to meet the domestic first-class letter rate, an 11¢ stamp inscribed AIR MAIL or AIRMAIL to meet the domestic airmail rate, and a 15¢ multipurpose stamp that met the airmail letter rate to countries in Europe and Latin America.

The National Parks set added a block of four se-tenant 2¢ Cape Hatteras stamps that could be kept intact to pay surface letter postage, shown in Figure 2 with its full set.

The Figure 3 airmail cover from Hawaii to Maryland is properly franked with an 11¢ Skiing and Olympic Rings stamp from the Olympic Winter Games set. A set of Tourism of the Americas commemorative postal cards (Scott UX61-UX63 and UXC12-UX13) also included airmail denominations.

Merging First Class and Airmail

As time wore on, the overly optimistic airmail service pledge weakened, became vague, and eventually faded from public view. In October 1973, purple nylon pouches called Speedy Bags were distributed for bagging airmail special-delivery mail only. A November 1973 Postal Bulletin declared that “the Postal Service delivers letters overnight to designated cities, generally those communities within a few hours’ flight time, and with appropriate air service.”

That appears to have been the policy when domestic postal rates increased March 2, 1974, to 10¢ for the first ounce of a first-class letter plus 9¢ for each added ounce, 8¢ for a surface postcard, 13¢ per ounce for an airmail letter, and 11¢ for an airmail postcard.

Meanwhile, Klassen came under fire from syndicated columnist Jack Anderson for “padding the postal payroll with his cronies and former business associates [who] have been allowed to feed at the public trough.” In Anderson’s view, the reforms had simply replaced the old system of political patronage with a new system of business patronage, while promised service improvements remained unfulfilled.

As Postal Service publicists calmed their fervor, management continued efforts to streamline airmail in hopes of achieving the elusive goals. Having inherited some established practices of transporting surface-rate mail by air, the virtue of expanding that approach into a broader policy might have become clearer to some business planners after their initial marketing efforts had fallen short of their hopes.

Finally, the Postal Service announced that “as of October 11, 1975, there will be no service advantage in paying airmail postage rates for domestic first-class mail.” After that date, airmail stamps could be used on all classes of domestic mail, but customers were invited to exchange airmail stamps, airmail postal cards, and airmail stamped envelopes for equivalent values of ordinary postage.

Obstacles to Merging Surface and Airmail

Streamlining the system so that mail traveled by the fastest means between points might have seemed easy on a planning team’s chalkboard, but real life is seldom simple, and postal reality is truly complex.

Just two months before postal services had switched from government stewardship to that of a more independently supervised business arrangement, railroad passenger service had gone in the opposite direction with an odd postal consequence. First-class travel for bees, crickets, mealworms, day-old chicks and baby alligators took on new meaning.

On Might 1, 1971, the National Railroad Passenger Corporation (RailPax), the forerunner of today’s Amtrak operated by the government, took over most privately owned intercity railroad passenger service. Much intercity mail went by rail, including aboard passenger trains.

By placing those trains under uniform government regulation, new RailPax restrictions affected what was mailable. Specifically, live animals and insects could no longer be sent by surface transport, only by air, whether or not that was the most expeditious means.

Similar restrictions applied in the opposite direction because airlines carried mail not only on dedicated cargo aircraft, but on passenger flights as well. Federal Aviation Administration regulations forbade transport of hazardous materials such as flammable liquids and solids, radioactive matter and strongly magnetic articles on those flights.

Henceforth, hazardous materials had to be sent by surface transport. The FAA restrictions were eventually overcome, mostly by rules that required the sort of bureaucratic red tape that the Postal Service had intended to sweep aside in its drive for efficiency.

A mailer filled out Form 2729 Hazardous Material in duplicate for each hazardous material parcel accepted for shipment, with one copy attached to the mailpiece and the other copy retained.

The item went as an “outside piece” (not bagged with ordinary parcels) identified as hazardous by having Tag 144 attached.

If the carrier rejected the parcel, it was endorsed “Refused for Air Transportation [name of airline],” which required Form 2759 Report on Irregular Handling of Mail to be filled out and filed, while the parcel was redirected to the most expeditious method of surface transportation.

With those procedures established, the October 1975 merger of first-class and airmail service could proceed smoothly, just ahead of the next round of rate increases.

The Final Airmail Rate Increases

On Dec. 31, 1975, domestic rates changed once more. The first ounce of a first-class letter required 13¢ postage, and each added ounce required 11¢. The surface postcard rate had been briefly reduced to 7¢ on Sept. 14 (an exceptionally short-lived rate); now it rose to 9¢. Rates for airmail letters increased to 17¢ for the first ounce and 15¢ for each added ounce, and the rate for airmail postcards changed to 14¢.

Customers had been told less than three months earlier that there was no advantage to paying the extra amount for domestic airmail service, so it might not be obvious why increased airmail rates were included in the new schedule. One possibility proposed by cynics was that businesses still had plentiful unused supplies of airmail business-reply cards and envelopes. Why should USPS pass up the opportunity to collect higher postage on those?

A more plausibly realistic need was for insured mail at a time when that service was not available for first-class letters. The Figure 4 cover is an example, mailed July 17, 1976, from Medford to Portland, Ore., by postal historian Henry W. Beecher. A red and blue 25¢ Jet Airplane and Globes airmail stamp and a black 4¢ Abraham Lincoln ordinary stamp on an orange and brown 13¢ Liberty Tree embossed stamped envelope, all three having luminescent tagging (Scott C89, 1282a and U576, respectively), paid the 17¢ airmail letter rate and 25¢ minimum insurance fee for contents valued up to $15.

This is the only example I have seen of the 17¢ domestic airmail letter rate, but insured airmail was a popular way for stamp dealers to send approvals and purchased material to their customers, so it is likely that collectors who search diligently for covers will find others that reflect this usage.

Nevertheless, a more important reason for keeping a separate domestic airmail rate concerned a different service called Pouch Loose mail.

Pouch-Loose Airmail

The name “pouch loose” airmail strikes me as so improbable — when I first read the term I imagined a mishap in the cargo hold of a mail plane — that I’m tempted to report it as “so-called pouch loose” airmail, especially because I have been searching for 40 years without ever seeing a cover that reflected this service, but it was important in its day.

It must have been important; I have read testimony gathered by the USPS inspector general from witnesses representing a tax firm who claimed their businesses had suffered losses because of delayed and misdirected pouch loose mail. I hope that a Linn’s reader will come forward with an example.

In a nutshell, this was a discretionary program that granted preferential treatment to postal customers with special needs.

It allowed incoming mail to be held at AMFs (airmail facilities) for pickup by the addressees. Section 351.13 of the Postal Service Manual set forth the governing regulations.

An application to the regional postmaster general provided the customer’s name, total pieces of mail to be received daily, ability of the facility (workforce size, available space) to provide the service, time advantage over regular delivery, and pickup schedule. If approved, pouch loose mail had to be prepared as follows:

a. Envelopes must measure at least 5¾"×10½", be bordered with the red and blue airmail insignia, and bear a red AIRMAIL imprint in letters at least 3/8” high above the address.

b. Customer’s name must be in letters at least ½" high. The words Pouch Loose To must be in letters at least 1/8" higher than the letters used for the customer’s name and must be printed under the name. The initials AMF followed by the name of the facility must be in letters at least 1/8" larger than the words Pouch Loose To and printed under those words.

A notice in the May 6, 1976, Postal Bulletin reminded postmasters that “Mailers sending pouch loose mail must prepay airmail or priority-rate postage on each piece.”

I have been unable to locate the date when pouch loose service began.

The earliest reference I found was in an April 1, 1965, Postal Bulletin notice, but I was tempted to dismiss it as an April Fools’ Day prank. The notice summarized the entire procedure, and gave the Postal Manual section number, so it’s clear that the service had already begun by that date.

The Postal Manual was a loose-leaf reference book that was frequently updated by transmittal letters, which substituted new pages for old ones as regulations were revised. To date, I have not located a copy with an original Section 351.32, as that section was numbered in 1965.

An UnexplainedAirmail Rate Mystery

The USPS Postal Rate Commission and board of governors tinkered one last time with domestic airmail rates, adding presorted quantity rates of 16¢ for letters and 13¢ for postcards, effective July 6, 1976. It’s hard to imagine why anyone would have used those rates. I know of no covers that reflect either usage.

Beecher and Linn’s columnist Anthony S. Wawrukiewicz proposed this in their book U.S. Domestic Postal Rates 1872-1999, in a footnote to the quantity-discount airmail postcard rate table: “If there was any use of this rate it could only have been because a mailer thought paying an extra 5¢ (by meter stamps) on each of at least 500 cards at the basic presort rate would favorably impress the recipients!”

The authors suggested that the discounted airmail letter rate conceivably might have been used if a mailer had prepared a quantity mailing of envelopes with valuable insured contents.

I hope that any Linn’s reader who owns a cover showing the correct application of either rate will share it with the rest of us.

Curtain Call forDomestic Airmail Service

All good things must end, and so it came to pass on May 1, 1977, two weeks shy of its 59th birthday, United States domestic airmail service ended. Regulations were adjusted so first-class mail that contained third- or fourth-class matter of value could be insured, and other minor adjustments reconciled the new arrangement with existing procedures.

Pouch-loose mail was phased out over a six-month period:

Eliminating airmail will require that alternative arrangements be made by customers who now are receiving their airmail under pouch loose arrangements. In order to provide an opportunity to explore alternative arrangements with these customers, the presently authorized pouch loose arrangements may continue until November 1, 1977. Effective May 1, 1977 first-class or priority postage must be paid for items sent as Pouch Loose to AMF.

Airmail Encores

Remnants of domestic airmail survive today as space-available and parcel airlift services for the military.

Figure 5 shows a Nov. 13, 1991, SAM tag from Fleet Post Office AE 09501 (Commander, U.S. Naval Forces, Central Command, 5th Fleet, either at Manama, Bahrain, or aboard a ship deployed in the Gulf region) to Battle Creek, Mich., with postage paid by one $5, a pair of $1, and a coil pair of 15¢ red and blue Official Mail stamps (Scott O133, O132 and O138A, respectively).

Military mail was zoned according to the distance from the port of debarkation to the destination, which in this instance was less than 700 miles, fitting into parcel post Zone 5 (600 to 1,000 miles).

Postage for a 15-pound parcel was $7.23, so the $7.30 postage amount on this tag probably represents a 7¢ convenience overpayment. Such frankings were characteristic of Official Mail because of the lack of enough low-denomination stamps.

Despite the lingering presence of occasional SAM and PAL parcels, domestic airmail is now part of history, but has left hobbyists a rich trove of material to collect, study and enjoy.

Published 2/28/2014 11:53 AM