Airmail In The United States Thesis

Length: 18 pages Sources: 10 Subject: Transportation Type: Thesis Paper: #68589230 Related Topics: Interwar, Aeronautics, Economic Stimulus Act, Sky High Airlines
Excerpt from Thesis :

S. Postal Systems 1775-1993). A third segment of this transcontinental route was established in 1920 and ran from Chicago to Omaha by way of Iowa City, with feeder lines to this primary route being provided from St. Louis and Minneapolis to Chicago (U.S. Postal Systems 1775-1993). The final transcontinental segment was established on September 8, 1920 and ran from Omaha to San Francisco by way of North Platte, Cheyenne, Rawlins, Rock Springs, Salt Lake City, Elko, and Reno (U.S. Postal Systems 1775-1993).

One of the more interesting aspects of this early transcontinental route was the need to remove all of the mail from airplanes at the end of the day and place it on trains for continuation of the service at night by trains since these early aircraft were unable to fly at night; despite this added contrast, though, the transcontinental route was truly a "Pony Express" of the era and managed to improve delivery times over train-only delivery service by almost a full day (22 hours) (U.S. Postal Systems 1775-1993).

Another innovation that can be directly tied to the introduction of air mail service in the United States was the push to establish more radio stations across the country in order to provide air mail service pilots with timely weather information that was required to transport the mail across country. In response to this need, the Post Office started installation of radio stations at each of its air fields in August, 1920 and by November of that year, ten ratio stations were in operation (including two Navy stations) (U.S. Postal Systems 1775-1993). According to these historians, "When airmail traffic permitted, other government departments used the radios instead of the telegraph for special messages, and the Department of Agriculture transmitted weather forecasts and stock market reports over the radios" (U.S. Postal Systems 1775-1993, p. 6).

From its beginnings just a year-and-a-half before, the Post Office succeeded in transporting air mail across the country by February 22, 1921, and airplanes were flying at night by this time as well, thereby eliminating the time-consuming step of taking the mail off planes and placing on trains at night. In response to these successes, the U.S. Congress appropriated an additional $1,250,000 to further expand air mail service, with much of this allocation being devoted to providing improved ground facilities (U.S. Postal Systems 1775-1993). Here again, these early efforts on the part of the government and the Post Office Department were directly responsible for contributing to the creation of an aviation industry infrastructure that would continue to facilitate growth in the industry for years to come. Based on this supplemental appropriation, the Post Office built additional landing fields, towers, beacons, searchlights, and boundary markers across the nation; in addition, the department also provided its aircraft with equipment that would contribute to flight safety at night, including luminescent instruments, navigational lights, and parachute flares (U.S. Postal Systems 1775-1993). As a result of its effort to improve service and pilot safety during these early years of flight, the Post Office was awarded the Collier Trophy for its significant contributions to the development of aeronautics, especially its safety record, and for demonstrating the feasibility of night flying in 1922 and 1923; in addition, an airmail pilot received the first Harmon Trophy for advancing aviation in 1926 (U.S. Postal System 1775-1993).

Thereafter, Chicago was designated as the hub for the nation's midcontinental service, with lateral lines being established by 1928 with St. Paul, St. Louis, Cincinnati, Detroit, San Antonio, and Galveston by way of Kansas City and Dallas. Salt Lake City became the center of mountain service, with radiating lines, by 1928, through Boise to Pasco, Washington, then to Great Falls, Montana and subsequently to Los Angeles (Malin). In addition, Pacific-coast lines connected San Francisco north to Seattle and south to Los Angeles. Atlantic-coast lines reached New Orleans and Miami (Malin). In the midst of all of this innovation and development, a series of important legislative initiatives would further fuel growth in both the aviation industry and air mail service as well, and these are discussed further below.

The Contract Air Mail Act.

In 1925, Congress passed the Contract Air Mail Act which provided that the nation's airmail routes were to be assigned to commercial carriers, which would serve particular connections under contract (Heppenheimer, 2001). It is significant to note, though, that these early airlines were nothing like their modern-day counterparts. In this regard, Heppenheimer...


They were more like Robertson Aircraft Corporation, which carried the mail from St. Louis to Chicago, numbering Lindbergh as one of its pilots. Even so, with airmail providing a steady source of revenue, this law encouraged the growth of start-up airlines that had considerably better prospects. These start-ups carried mail, not passengers; if they indeed carried paying travelers, it was merely as a sideline. But they provided day-by-day scheduled flights along marked routes, thereby laying groundwork for the passenger lines of subsequent years" (p. 154). In his book, Eastern's Armageddon, Saunders (1992) reports that, "In the early 1920s, civil aviation consisted mainly of 'barnstorming, stunt flying, and occasional charter trips.' Everything changed in 1925 when the Contract Air Mail Act was passed. Sponsored by Pennsylvania Representative Clarence Kelly, the bill gave the job of flying the mail to private contractors. Thousands of bids began pouring in within weeks. Among the successful bidders was Pitcairn Aviation," the predecessor to Eastern Airlines (p. 24). By mid- 1928, Pitcairn was responsible for carrying almost 33% of all of the nation's total airmail mileage (Saunders).

According to Duke and Torres (2005), "The air transportation industry has experienced rapid growth since its origins dating back to the Contract Air Mail Act of 1925, and this growth has been accompanied by growth in the quantity and complexity of the capital stock. A number of important technological innovations -- before and during regulation -- made airplanes safer, faster, and more efficient, helping to attract passengers away from other means of transportation such as railroads" (p. 33). In his book, Government Regulation of Transportation, Johnson (1938) reports that, "The substitution of contract service in place of government transportation of air mail was made possible by the passage of the Air Mail Act approved February 2, 1925. Congress had regarded the performance of the service by the Government as a temporary measure to be given up when regular air-line carriers had become able to perform the service under contract" (p. 604).

Pursuant to authority provided the postmaster general by the Act of 1925, the postal service arranged periodic contracts whereby service over one route after another was arranged for; and, by the end of 1927, Johnson notes that, "the Post Office Department had ceased to concern itself with the operation of a roplanes and with the creation and equipment of airways" (p. 604). Likewise, Malin reports that, "Air-mail postage was fixed by act of Congress (May 10, 1918) at not to exceed twenty-four cents an ounce or a fraction thereof. The service was operated by the Postmaster General until 1926" (Malin, p. 154).

The prevailing sentiment against government operation, except in the experimental stage, when the government was to bear the losses, dictated a transfer to private operation. An act of February 2, 1925, was passed "to encourage commercial aviation and to authorize the Postmaster-General to contract for air-mail service" (quoted in Mailin at p. 155). Postage rates at the time were to be not less than ten cents an ounce and contracts with private operators were stipulated to not exceed four-fifths of the revenues that were collected for air mail and were not to exceed four fifths of the revenues from other first-class mail (Malin). According to this historian, "The contract price was changed by an act of June 3, 1926, to a fixed rate per pound. Rates for air mail were not to exceed three dollars per pound for the first thousand miles and thirty cents per pound for each additional hundred miles. Rates on other first-class mail were not to exceed sixty cents per pound for the first thousand miles and six cents for each additional hundred" (Malin, p. 155). During Fiscal Year 1928, air mail contractors were paid $4,042,777 for transporting 1,861,800 pounds of mail; because the average piece of first-class mail weighed 0.433 ounce, the receipts from postage represented approximately $3,425,712 (Malin).

The transfer to private operation was completed rapidly, the last contract (the one covering the New York to Chicago division) being announced April 3, 1927, at $1.24 per pound to the National Air Transport, Inc. (N a.T.). This company also operated the Chicago-Dallas line. These mail contracts were in the nature of a subsidy to commercial aviation, since it was intended that…

Sources Used in Documents:


Boston, G. (2005, August 28). Historic site for aircraft; College Park Aviation Museum. The Washington Times, D04.

De Syon, G. (2004). Airlines and air mail: The Post Office and the birth of the commercial aviation industry. Air Power History, 51(1), 56/

Duke, J. & Torres, V. (2005). Multifactor productivity change in the air transportation industry: productivity increases in the U.S. airline industry -- the nation's primary intercity mass transportation system-have played a significant role in the industry's cost-containment efforts and its ability to accelerate growth. Monthly Labor Review, 128(3), 32-34.

Facts and figures about the Postal Service. (2008). U.S. Postal Service. [Online]. Available:

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