USPS Reworks Delivery Network for the Holidays

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The U.S. Postal Service is restructuring its delivery network for this year's Christmas rush, adding more trucks and using fewer airplanes to transport mail around the country.


The postal service is forced to rely on ground transportation much more extensively, said Paul Vogel, vice president of network operations management, because "we can't put a certain amount of the product on the commercial air carriers because of FAA regulations."


The USPS lost almost 50 percent of its volume that used to be on commercial carriers because of new Federal Aviation Administration regulations and less mail. In response, it has added 194 more truck routes compared with 94 last year. The postal service also is turning to wider-body planes that aren't being used by passenger airlines.


"They take about 30 percent more volume and are more efficient to run because they are usually newer and cheaper," Vogel said.


The postal service is getting extra help this holiday season from FedEx as part of an alliance that took effect in August. FedEx is flying up to 3.5 million pounds of USPS Express and Priority Mail shipments daily. In return, FedEx has been allowed to put self-service drop boxes in every post office.


Though the USPS' mail volume has fallen since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks -- 6.6 percent in September and even more in October -- it is planning for a 5 percent rise for Priority Mail and Parcel Post mail from Thanksgiving through Dec. 24. It expects to deliver 20 billion greeting cards and packages this season, the same as last year.


The postal service expects its busiest day for package delivery will be Dec. 10 for Parcel Post and Dec. 17 for Priority and Express Mail and First-Class Christmas cards. Though officials said they aren't sure what to expect, they have prepared for a typical season.


"We have built our network for a 5 percent increase, which we did last year," Vogel said. "Our expectation is that the economy is going to stay soft through Christmas but that is not going to stop people from buying Christmas presents. It really comes down to whether or not people are going to travel -- and if they don't travel, they will probably wind up mailing packages to friends and relatives."


In past years, the USPS added 20,000 to 40,000 temporary workers. It has not decided how many to hire this year. It depends on how much the anthrax issue affects mail volume. Vogel said automation efforts also have eliminated the need for many of those extra workers.


"We are really, really cutting back on hiring for the handling of cards and letters and flats," he said. "Each individual plant right now is assessing a pretty modest number of people they are going to bring on board just for the heavy lifting work of moving packages."


Vogel said the USPS will start up its additional network capacity Dec. 11.


FedEx Corp. and United Parcel Service predict a normal holiday season. UPS said this month that it expects to deliver more than 325 million packages globally during the holiday peak season.


The annual surge in Thanksgiving-to-Christmas volume is forecast to crest Dec. 18. UPS anticipates delivering more than 18 million air and ground packages globally that day. UPS also said this year's peak for air express delivery would be Dec. 20, with a global volume of more than 4 million packages. This is double typical levels. Online tracking requests, which averaged 5 million a day in October, are expected to reach 8 million to 10 million inquiries Dec. 18.


More than 1,300 UPS flights will take off each day during the peak week, Dec. 17-24, up from 900 on an average day. To accommodate additional air volume, UPS will add more than a dozen large jets to supplement the more than 600 planes in operation year-round. It will open five additional air hubs just for the peak season.


New this year is a service that lets consumers go online to arrange alternative delivery times and locations after receiving notice that a package cannot be delivered without a signature. Using the Web, a consumer could reschedule a delivery date or ask that the package be delivered to another address.


FedEx said it anticipates that FedEx Express and FedEx Ground may handle nearly 6 million packages -- about the same amount as last year -- on its most hectic day, Dec. 19. Officials said they are not hiring any extra holiday help. Last year, FedEx hired 6,000 temporary workers. The company would not give specifics on its delivery methods, saying it routinely adjusts its flight schedules to accommodate fluctuations in package volumes.


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