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What is Air Mail?

June 9th, 2017

Sometimes your boxes and shipments will soar 39,000 feet in the air. From the time the USPS first experimented with mail flight in 1911 to the present day, letters and parcels have been carried through the air to ensure speedy delivery for your recipients. What constitutes “air mail”? What scenarios cause the USPS to send something by air instead of by surface transportation?

Generally, Priority Mail, Priority Mail Express and First-Class Mail pieces will be shipped by air.  However, these mail classes may also be shipped by ground depending on the originating and destination points—for example, if a destination is within driving distance. Postal trucks on the highway generally transport pieces that have to be shipped 500 miles away or less. For longer distances, your mail may be transported by freight railroad.

Sometimes your mailpiece may travel by a combination of air and ground. The USPS will always strive to get a mailpiece to your recipients by the fastest way possible. Parcel Select and Media Mail, which receive special discounted rates, will generally ship by surface transportation.

How does the USPS ship mailpieces by air? Rather than maintaining an expensive fleet of postal planes, your mail will generally “hitch a ride” on the airplane of a private carrier. The USPS negotiates contracts with commercial carriers to transport its mail, something it began to do in 1925. Airlines such as United Airlines and TWA (which became part of American Airlines in 2001) actually began as transporters of air mail. USPS mail is carried on both passenger and cargo planes. FedEx also provides air transportation for USPS domestic First-Class Mail, Priority Mail and Priority Express Mail, as well as some international mail.

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It’s always important to remain compliant with current USPS statutes and regulations. Remember that certain hazardous items (such as aerosol cans, spray paint, rubbing alcohol or paint) cannot be shipped by air. For international mail, always fully and clearly identify the contents on your customs form. Items will also need to meet USPS packaging and marking requirements. Please also keep in mind that an individual pilot may decide to refuse mailpieces that present a potential danger to the aircraft. Refused pieces may also include unidentifiable items or shipments of live animals whose safety is threatened by temperature conditions in the air.

A detailed guide on shipping via USPS air transportation can be found here: https://pe.usps.com/text/pub52/pub52c7_001.htm

You can combine the speed of a jumbo jet with the convenience of requesting a free USPS pickup by using the powerful Stamps.com platform! The free USPS pickup service is available for Priority Express Mail, Priority Mail, Priority Express Mail International, Priority Mail International and Global Express Guaranteed.  In the Stamps.com software, click “USPS Pickup” from the “View History” menu on the left navigation bar of the software to start the process.  Mailpieces with non-qualifying mail classes (such as First Class Mail) can be picked up as long as your pickup request includes at least one qualifying class.

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