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The Rise And Fall Of Domestic Airmail Service
On July 1, 1971, President Richard M. Nixon announced the opening of the New United States Postal Service to supersede the old Post Office Department. Nixon’s announcement heralded the change as way to replace the old bureaucratic and obsolete cabinet-level government operation with a more nimble. autonomous and efficient business enterprise.
Forty odd years later, one wonders how nimble and efficient the Postal Service ever was. However, there is little doubt the first managers took their jobs seriously, as they searched for problems even before the old Post Office Department’s traditions had yet to die out.
Congress had raised domestic postal rates on may 16, which boosted revenue for the first phase of the new quasi-business operation and postponed the day of reckoning in the event that reorganizing mail service as a profitable business proved to be more difficult than its proponents had anticipated.
Domestic airmail letter rates rose from ten cents to eleven cents per ounce as the first class surface letter rate rose from six cents to eight cents per ounce. In choosing between the two most important categories of business mail, customers usually chose to pay a premium for intercity transport by air.
Was the extra cost worth it? 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 within a 600-mile radius of their origin, on the next day after mailing. To many observers, these claims had been made by the old Post Office Department.
The is as early 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.; Los Angeles; 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 this 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 during the 60s, 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 addresses to Army and Navy post offices overseas qualified for space-available transport at no charge. My next installment is coming next week on the saga of this story.
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