Shipping something overnight across the country is an almost magical process. How does something start in, say, New York City and end up in L.A. by 6 p.m. the next day?
Airmail, that’s how. And USPS uses air mail for many different services, both domestically and internationally, to ensure that your letters and parcels make it on time.
It’s a fair question to ask, then: Does USPS have planes? It seems like an obvious answer, but you might be surprised below!
Does USPS Have Planes?
The United States Postal Service does not have its own fleet of airplanes as of 2023. Instead, USPS has contracts with other shipping companies and airlines so that mail can essentially “hitch a ride” on their flights. The largest contract is with FedEx, which maintains its own fleet of 685 planes.
To learn more about why USPS doesn’t have its own planes, how USPS’s contracts with other airlines work, and even other transport methods you might not have thought about, keep reading!
Why Doesn’t USPS Have Its Own Planes?
It might seem odd that USPS, being an offshoot of the Executive Branch of government, does not have its own fleet of airplanes for all the long-haul and international shipping it undertakes.
The reason for this might shock you. According to SimplyFlying.com, while the USPS is an official government organization, none of its funding comes from tax dollars.
That’s right, despite serving hundreds of millions of Americans every day, none of the taxes collected goes back into USPS.
Instead, the organization operates solely on the proceeds from its sales.
USPS has a robust product line, including stamps and shipping services, but the cost of maintaining basically their own airline is gargantuan.
Consider that it goes far beyond just purchasing planes; there is the plane maintenance, the fuel, and employee salaries – that all cost big bucks.
The author of the SimplyFlying.com article also makes a great point: how many small mailpieces (letters, etc.) do you receive, compared to larger items, like a TV?
Even so many smaller mailpieces do not generate enough revenue to support an entire independent airline.
As it happens, USPS has a long history of instead contracting air mail services with existing airlines.
Examples include United Airlines and Western Airlines, whose early partnership with USPS in the 1920s helped bolster the popularity of commercial air flight.
Consider that! Without USPS air mail services in the early part of the 20th century, commercial flight today might not be quite as accessible.
What Airline Does USPS Use?
The United States Postal Service contracts currently with several airlines, but according to USPS.com, FedEx is “the largest provider of air transportation capacity to the Postal Service.”
It’s not difficult to see why.
Currently, FedEx’s airline, FedEx Express, operates 685 airplanes. The company maintains 19 hubs around the world (the “SuperHub” is in Memphis, TN).
Yes, the shipping company that delivers your packages has the largest airline in the world by scheduled freight and the fourth-largest by fleet size.
(Only American, United, and Delta maintain larger fleets.)
USPS and FedEx Express have had a working relationship since 2001, and in 2020 USPS renewed its contract with the shipping titan through 2024.
But USPS doesn’t just use FedEx’s cargo planes. The organization also holds contracts with passenger airlines.
These include United Airlines (contract valued at $167 million), American Airlines (contract valued at $98+ million) and Alaska Airlines (contract valued at $39 million).
If that is how much each contract is worth – and USPS has contracts with each one – consider how much it must cost to actually operate their own airline.
This is actually saving them money!
Consider, too, the push to keep the Postal Service afloat.
These contracts mean that if USPS becomes financially insolvent, it could very well take the equally struggling airline industry down with them.
How Does USPS Air Mail Work?
The Postal Service determines the best way to ship your mailpiece, whether it be by ground transport (trucks), train, or air travel.
Sometimes, it’s a combination of two or three, depending on what USPS deems is the most sensible route.
When your parcel travels by air, it can fly one of three ways: by passenger airline, by cargo plane, or “huge payloads that ride in super cargo planes.”
According to HowStuffWorks.com, USPS leases space on over half the passenger flights that zip around the country each day!
That mail is placed into special cargo containers that have been made to fit the holds, which rest below the passenger seating.
Naturally, Cargo planes can fit much more in them because the whole space is dedicated to mail. It’s incredible to think that FedEx Express operates nearly 700 planes just for mail.
Since it would be virtually impossible to get forklifts into all regions of the cargo plane, the interiors are outfitted with horizontal escalator-like tracks.
These tracks move the cargo from the furthest reaches of the plane to the loading area, ensuring that no space is wasted.
FedEx Express’s Boeing 747s can actually fit the cargo equivalent of five semis!
Does USPS Use Planes Or Trucks More?
While USPS has the use of FedEx Express and commercial airlines’ extensive fleets, the organization is actually cutting back the use of them.
As part of their overall cost-cutting plan to slow down mail delivery on First-Class service, USPS plans to use more truck transport than planes.
Not only is it cheaper, according to CNet.com, USPS reasoned it was “more reliable” in every season versus air flight, which often sees major delays in winter.
That article continues, stating that USPS plans to modernize their delivery vehicles; the organization will be pouring millions, if not billions, into those upgrades.