Postmaster’s Division of Airmail Routes Creates a Scandal Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

The Air Mail Act of 1930 gave U.S. postmaster Walter Folger Brown complete power over the movement of mail by air. After its passage, Brown met with airline executives to divide airmail routes among only three airlines. President Franklin D. Roosevelt soon dissolved the monopoly and ordered the Army Air Corps to deliver the mail. Twelve ill-equipped pilots died before a better-regulated private industry could resume mail delivery.

Summary of Event

In 1930, U.S. postmaster general Walter Folger Brown was enabled by federal legislation to rule like a czar over not only the airmail routes of the United States but also its accompanying contracting. Newly empowered, Brown met in May, 1930, with the top executives of three major U.S. airlines (precursors to American Airlines, Trans World Airways, and United Airlines). At the meeting, which came to be called the Spoils Conference, Brown developed three primary airmail routes, with each airline company covering a given route exclusively. Curiously, rather than pay the airlines according to the amount of mail, in pounds, they actually delivered, Brown elected to pay them based on the cargo volume of their respective operable airplane fleets. Airmail scandal Air Mail Act of 1930 Brown, Walter Folger [kw]Postmaster’s Division of Airmail Routes Creates a Scandal (May, 1930) [kw]Airmail Routes Creates a Scandal, Postmaster’s Division of (May, 1930) Airmail scandal Air Mail Act of 1930 Brown, Walter Folger [g]United States;May, 1930: Postmaster’s Division of Airmail Routes Creates a Scandal[00480] [c]Government;May, 1930: Postmaster’s Division of Airmail Routes Creates a Scandal[00480] [c]Space and aviation;May, 1930: Postmaster’s Division of Airmail Routes Creates a Scandal[00480] [c]Business;May, 1930: Postmaster’s Division of Airmail Routes Creates a Scandal[00480] [c]Corruption;May, 1930: Postmaster’s Division of Airmail Routes Creates a Scandal[00480] [c]Military;May, 1930: Postmaster’s Division of Airmail Routes Creates a Scandal[00480] [c]Politics;May, 1930: Postmaster’s Division of Airmail Routes Creates a Scandal[00480] Hoover, Herbert Roosevelt, Franklin D. [p]Roosevelt, Franklin D.;and airmail scandal[airmail scandal]

Walter Folger Brown.

(Library of Congress)

Brown’s decision, scandalous as it was revealed to be, would have three significant consequences: the deaths of U.S. Army Air Corps (AAC) pilots, the alteration of the fledgling commercial airline industry, and the development of a modern U.S. Air Force. In the most negative light, Brown had negotiated in a private setting with a cadre of industry leaders. By doing so, he prevented smaller companies from competing in an open marketplace. This both stifled competition and led smaller airline operators to insolvency. American taxpayers lost in this deal because they were paying noncompetitive rates for airmail delivery. In a positive light, Brown was a visionary who was charged with a task quite unusual for a postmaster general.

This twisting, yet vital story began with the first delivery of mail by airplane in 1918 in a flight from Washington, D.C., to New York (with a stop in Philadelphia). During the early days of aviation, the delivery of mail was exciting and challenging. Airplanes had open cockpits, and pilots were forced to cope with buffeting winds and extremely cold temperatures while flying without instruments. Needless to say, the design and manufacture of airplanes was primitive by modern standards. These earliest of airmail flights were conducted not by contractors but rather by an arm of the federal government called the Air Mail Service.

The Kelly Act (also known as the Air Mail Act) of 1925 began the process of ending this government service and replacing it with private contractors. The idea was that the high risks of airmail should be assumed by a private company rather than by government employees. Within a short period of time, however, the price being charged for airmail delivery began to rise. In an attempt to rectify this problem, the U.S. Congress, on April 29, 1930, passed the McNary-Watres Act (best known as the Air Mail Act of 1930), which enabled President Herbert Hoover’s postmaster general to corral the upstart airline industry into providing less expensive mail delivery.

The 1930 act made Brown an important figure in civil aviation. At the time, he faced a youthful industry without stable financing, but he envisioned possibilities beyond mail delivery. By paying airlines by volume, he provided an incentive for the largest companies to create high-volume fleets, which could be used for passenger travel. He thereby helped create a modern passenger airline industry. However one views Brown as a visionary or as an industry bagman public outrage was followed by congressional hearings in 1934 that would expose his superficially bizarre pay structure for airmail contractors.

As the newly elected president, Franklin D. Roosevelt was faced with the problem of efficiently delivering the nation’s mail. Congressional hearings led to the dissolution of all private airmail contracts on February 19, 1934. In place of private airmail delivery, the AAC was tasked with flying the routes. The AAC program, called AACMO (Army Air Corps Mail Operation), however, assigned inexperienced pilots to the mail routes, which were flown at night and in poor weather, two conditions little encountered by the young airmen assigned to the flights. One dozen aviators crashed and died during the short period (February 19-June 6) in which the AAC made the flights.

Much like Brown’s contracting scandal, the AACMO crashes led to inflammatory headlines of their own. Only the pilots of one region headed by aviation hero H. H. Arnold flew their routes without suffering fatalities. (Arnold went on to command the Army Air Forces during World War II and became a driving force behind the creation of the modern U.S. Air Force.)

Impact

The politics of airmail played an important but often overlooked role in U.S. history. The airmail scandal of the early 1930’s in particular should be remembered more for its remarkably lasting effects than for the particularities of its unfolding. The scandal further developed the fledgling commercial airline industry and provided an impetus for creating the modern U.S. Air Force. Furthermore, the scandal highlighted the significance of monopoly-busting government regulation.

The confidence and risk taking of the AAC brought to public light the shortcomings of the airborne military capacity of the United States. The lessons learned during the military’s turn at airmail delivery proved crucial, leading to reforms in both AAC funding levels and safety before World War II. The nation took notice of the pilots’ crashes and wondered, even on the floor of Congress, what would become of such a unit if it had to carry bombs rather than mail.

The congressional oversight of Alabama senator Hugo L. Black (later associate justice of the United States) would cast a dark shadow over the corrupt practices of Brown, who was portrayed as an insider who had it out for the “little person,” whether that person was a small business owner in the airplane industry or a postal customer. On June 12, 1934, Black introduced what would become the Air Mail Act of 1934, which further regulated the airline industry by breaking monopolies. The act also set airmail rates, routes, and schedules; regulated air traffic; and licensed pilots. Brown was exonerated several years after the hearings.

The profits generated from the contracts Brown devised likely helped to support the struggling airline industry during the early 1930’s. Furthermore, the protection provided by contracts consolidated the industry, leading to an effective system of domestic air travel. Airmail scandal Air Mail Act of 1930 Brown, Walter Folger

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Borden, Norman E., Jr. Air Mail Emergency, 1934. Freeport, Maine: Bond Wheelright, 1968. An easy-to-read account of the Army Air Corps’ effort to deliver the nation’s mail in 1934. The book features many first-person accounts of what turned out to be daredevil flights.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Coffey, Thomas M. HAP: The Story of the U.S. Air Force and the Man Who Built It. New York: Viking Press, 1982. This is a comprehensive biography of the most successful commander of the Army Air Corps mail-delivery operation.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Frisbee, John L. “AACMO Fiasco or Victory.” In Air Force Magazine, March, 1995. This short piece places AACMO (the Army Air Corps Mail Operation) in historical context. The author highlights the often understated legacy of the effort.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Glines, Carroll V. The Saga of the Air Mail. New York: Arno Press, 1980. A solid history of the airmail system from its earliest days through the 1950’s.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hoover, Herbert. “The President’s News Conference of October 15, 1929.” In The Public Papers of Herbert Hoover. Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1974. This brief policy statement by Hoover provides an original account of the struggles the government was facing with mail delivery.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Leary, William M. Aerial Pioneers. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1985. A history of the airmail service from its inception in 1918 to the transition of airmail delivery to private industry.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Nalty, Bernard C., ed. Winged Shield, Winged Sword. Washington, D.C.: United States Air Force History and Museums Program, 1997. A massive two-volume work that provides a definitive account of the rise of the modern U.S. Air Force. Includes discussion of the Army Air Corps’ mail-delivery mission.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Van der Linden, F. Robert. Airlines and Air Mail: The Post Office and the Birth of the Commercial Aviation Industry. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2002. The author, an air transportation expert at the Smithsonian Institution’s Air and Space Museum, discusses how commercial aviation formed and then thrived because of government contracts to deliver mail.

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