Airmail delivery Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The distribution of intercity and international first-class mail by aircraft rather than surface transport.

Early Experiments

The earliest U.S. airmail experiment took place in 1858, when balloonist John Wise was contracted by Thomas Wood, the postmaster of Lafayette, Indiana, to carry a packet of mail to New York by air. This trip was advertised as the world’s first official airmail delivery. However, the winds did not cooperate, and Wise was blown south rather than east. After a short flight, he landed a mere 30 miles from his point of departure.

Although this first attempt was less than successful, the U.S. Post Office continued to support airmail experiments. As early as 1910, aviation pioneer Glenn H. Curtiss had unofficially carried mail in an aircraft. The first official mail to be carried in a heavier-than-air craft was carried by pilot Earle Ovington at the International Aviation Meet at Garden City, New York, in September, 1911. During the weeklong air meet, Ovington carried more than 40,000 pieces of mail by air to nearby Mineola, New York. Postmaster Frank Hitchcock was so impressed by the feat that he authorized the carriage of airmail from New York to Los Angeles. Given the state of aviation at this time, however, it would be many years before this plan became a reality.

The Air Mail Service

As early as 1912, the U.S. Post Office had requested funding to establish an experimental airmail service. The request, for a congressional appropriation of $50,000 for the establishment of the experimental program, was denied. Nevertheless, the postmaster continued to support the demonstration flights that were taking place at various air meets and renewed the request for funding each year.

In 1916, an appropriation was finally approved. The U.S. Post Office requested bids to operate experimental routes in Alaska and Massachusetts. Because the state of aircraft design at the time was such that there were no aircraft capable of successfully meeting the terms of the contract, there were no bidders.

The U.S. Post Office began negotiations with various aircraft manufacturers to design aircraft capable of meeting the demands of a scheduled airmail service. However, in 1917, the United States entered World War I, and the efforts of the Post Office were curtailed. World War I would have one effect that would later benefit the efforts of the Post Office. In response to the demands of the war, the design and performance of aircraft underwent significant improvement. By war’s end, aircraft were available that could meet the demands of the postal service.

On June 30, 1918, the U.S. Post Office finally received an appropriation of $100,000 to initiate an experimental airmail service. The problem now was that the Post Office had no pilots or aircraft. U.S. Army captain Benjamin Lipsner was appointed to run the experiment, and Army pilots were assigned to fly the initial flights. The Post Office ordered six modified Curtiss aircraft to support the effort. On May 15, 1918, the first airmail flight was conducted, connecting Washington, D.C., Philadelphia, and New York. The effort was a success, even though one of the pilots from Washington, D.C., became lost and landed in Maryland, causing the mail to be put on a train for delivery. When, on August 12, 1918, the Post Office officially took over from the Army and began flying the mail with its own pilots and aircraft, the U.S. Air Mail Service was officially launched.

The original mail route between Washington, D.C., and New York was steadily expanded. The intent was to establish a transcontinental route from New York to San Francisco with feeder routes running north and south that connected with the transcontinental route. The original transcontinental route was completed on September 8, 1920. Using a combination of aircraft during the daylight hours and trains at night, airmail arrived twenty-two hours faster than the fastest train then in service. On February 22, 1921, an attempt was made to demonstrate day and night flying along the route. This day-night transcontinental demonstration was successful, and continuous flight was authorized. In addition, Congress appropriated $1,250,000 for the expansion of the service. In conjunction with this effort, portions of the airway were lighted with beacons, emergency airfields were established, and radio stations reported weather. As a result of these developments, the time for transcontinental mail delivery was reduced to twenty-six hours and fourteen minutes for eastbound travel and to twenty-nine hours and thirty-eight minutes westbound. This effort proved to be very popular, and the Post Office ordered fifty-one specially designed Douglas mail planes to replace the World War I surplus airplanes that had been operating since 1918. The arrival of these new aircraft further reduced the time required for transcontinental mail delivery. On July 1, 1924, airmail postage was set at eight cents per ounce, and regular night mail service began.

During the period from 1918 to 1927, when the U.S. Post Office operated the airmail service, the route structure increased from the original 218 miles to more than 2,700 miles. Air Mail Service planes experienced more than two hundred crashes, and more than eighty pilots were killed or injured. Of the original forty pilots hired by the Post Office, thirty-one were killed. Air Mail Service pilots flew more than 13,000,000 miles and carried 301,000,000 letters. They completed more than 93 percent of their scheduled flights. The total government expenditure for the entire period was $17,411,534. Income from the service totaled approximately $3,000,000.

The Air Mail Act of 1925

Even though the U.S. Post Office had demonstrated the feasibility of transcontinental airmail service, the ultimate goal was to turn the system over to private companies. Congress passed the Air Mail Act of 1925, known as the Kelly Act, which authorized the Post Office to solicit competitive bids for various airmail routes, culminating with the award of the transcontinental route to private companies. The first contracted airmail flights began in 1926. The last flight of the U.S. Post Office Air Mail Service took place on August 31, 1927.

The passage of the Kelly Act initiated the era of contract airmail. As the postal routes were turned over to private companies, the award of the contracts was used as a tool to encourage, and in some cases to force, operators to begin carrying passengers, as well as mail. Many modern carriers that continue to operate began as contract airmail carriers. In 1925, the initial five contracts were awarded. The awarding of routes continued, with the transcontinental route being awarded in two parts in 1927. The volume of mail increased substantially in 1928, when the airmail postage rate was lowered to five cents per ounce.

In 1929, Walter Folger Brown was appointed postmaster general under the administration of President Herbert Hoover. Brown had a vision for the air transportation system that would make it the most efficient system in the world. To support his goal, he arranged the passage of the Air Mail Act of 1930, also known as the McNary-Watres Act. This act gave the postmaster virtually total control of the contract airmail bidding process. Brown proceeded to implement a system favoring larger, more well-financed operators at the expense of the smaller operators, forcing a number of airlines to merge in the name of efficiency. He invited only the large operators to attend conferences in Washington, D.C., where contracts were awarded. These conferences became known as the spoils conferences and resulted in a scandal that led to the cancellation of all airmail contracts in 1934. Brown’s actions resulted in the large airlines, such as United Air Lines, Trans World Airlines (TWA), American Airlines, Eastern Air Lines, and Northwest Airlines, receiving lucrative contracts at the expense of smaller operators. By July, 1933, twenty-three airmail routes had been established, covering 27,735 miles.

With the election of President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1932, there were charges of collusion and graft, and the contracts came under investigation. Although no evidence was uncovered indicating illegal activity, Roosevelt canceled all existing airmail contracts and turned the airmail over to the U.S. Army, which began flying the mail on February 19, 1934. The Army was, however, ill-equipped and ill-trained to fly the mail. They were only able to service twelve of the existing routes. Immediately tragedy struck. By the end of the first week, five pilots had been killed, and a total of twelve army pilots would perish. The press blamed the Roosevelt administration for the deaths, and there was a public outcry. By June 1, the airmail contracts had been returned to the civilian operators. However, the controversy was far from over.

The Air Mail Act of 1934

In response to the allegations of corruption, Congress passed the Air Mail Act of 1934, known as the Black-McKellar Act. This act revised the airmail contract awarding process, redefined the eligibility requirements for companies bidding on contracts, and forced airlines holding airmail contracts to be independent of any other companies involved in aviation. It also separated the airlines from the cartels, or parent companies, that furnished the airlines their financial backing and, in so doing, imposed a major burden on the companies that were awarded airmail contracts. The airlines lost large amounts of money because of these restrictions, and they would continue to do so until the Civil Aeronautics Act of 1938 was passed and the United States prepared to enter World War II.

One of the original goals of the contract airmail system had been to subsidize the fledgling airlines while they developed a profitable passenger transport system. While the rates paid to the airlines for the carriage of mail varied over the years, the cost to the U.S. Post Office had been steadily decreasing. The average cost of the contracts in 1929 was $1.10 per mile, which had decreased to $.54 per mile by the time the contracts were canceled in 1934. From 1938 to 1953, the airmail rates were set by the Civil Aeronautics Board (CAB). After 1953, the CAB paid the subsidies directly to the airlines in the form of what was called a fair charge for the services rendered, rather than a fixed amount based on weight.

Beginning in 1953, the U.S. Post Office began shipping first-class mail by air on a space-available basis on regularly scheduled airline flights. This, in effect, meant that some letters were being shipped by airmail while being charged the cheaper ground rate. By the mid-1970’s, the Post Office had begun exploring the feasibility of removing the additional airmail charges. After this was done, the airmail officially ended, with all first-class mail being delivered by the fastest means available. Through the utilization of regional as well as major airlines, the bulk of the intercity first-class mail now travels by air in the cargo compartments of most airline flights. The revenue provided by the mail has been reduced to a relatively minor percentage of airlines’ total revenues.

  • Christy, Joe. American Aviation: An Illustrated History. 2d ed. Blue Ridge Summit, Pa.: Tab Aero, 1994. A classic aviation history sourcebook containing many photographs and illustrations.
  • Glines, Carrol V. The Saga of the Airmail. Princeton, N.J.: D. Van Nostrand, 1968. An informative work that traces the evolution of the airmail, with much interesting data, such as early airmail pilot reports.
  • Holmes, Donald B. Air Mail: An Illustrated History, 1793-1981. New York: Clarkson N. Potter, 1981. An interesting overview of the development of the airmail both within the United States and internationally.

Airmail delivery was one of the first commercial uses for airplanes in the early 1900’s. By the end of the century, private express mail services such as Federal Express were challenging theU.S. Post Office for speedy mail delivery.

(AP/WideWorld Photos)

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