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Overseas airmail policy just doesn't fly

Robert Lyle

TEXT OF STORY

KAI RYSSDAL: Last May the United States ended a postal service that had been around as long as the county had -- sending letters and packages by sea. It's airmail only now for most international postage. From Great Britain, commentator Robert Lyle wonders whether the change has been worth it.


ROBERT LYLE: It's been 300 years since regular seagoing shipments of mail first started. Today most mail goes by air. So it seemed perfectly natural for the U.S. Postal Service to stop using ships and put everything on planes. After all, less than 3 percent of international mail went by sea anyway. And air package traffic has been growing for several years now -- e-Bay sellers just one factor.

Sounds wonderful. But at what a price.

For example, a 2-pound packet of research papers used to cost around $8 to send by surface to Europe. The same packet now costs four times as much. Charities that send clothing, books and other essentials to the poor in Third World countries have been hit even harder.

They used to be able to send their aid in so-called M-Bags at very low sea rates. Now the mail is just too expensive.

The charities are looking for ways around this new hurdle. They want to use the law which allows free shipments to the blind and disabled. But Congress doesn't allow the USPS to use profits from one class of mail to pay for another.

It's all driven by economics of scale. Big shippers can still get sea mail -- as long as they can fill a 40-foot-long container by themselves. Or if they spend millions on expensive mail products like express mail, they get sea mail as a bonus.

So the little guys are having to learn to work together. They can use one of 20 or so authorized postal wholesalers to combine their shipments to fill a container. It's not perfect, but it helps.

That just leaves we individuals. I recently had a package sent by air from the states and it took 24 days to fly to Britain. That's about the same time it would have taken to come by sea. Not much has changed. Except, of course, the price.

RYSSDAL: Robert Lyle is a semi-retired international economics journalist.

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