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Author Topic: Q&A: Why does airmail take so long?
Posts: 584
Post Q&A: Why does airmail take so long?
on: September 23, 2015, 23:49

"I can fly to China in 24 hours! Why does a package take weeks?"

The very short answer:
Parcels are handled in bulk as part of a mail stream of many items. This makes things much slower, but also much cheaper, which is why mailing a parcel costs about 1/50th as much as an airline ticket.

The somewhat longer answer:
Unfortunately, your parcel can't walk itself up to a plane, check in for a flight, and fly itself to China. It gets moved with hundreds or thousands of other mailpieces at a time, and its trip to or from China might look something like this:

Day 1

  • Collection: mail from mailboxes and postal outlets is collected and brought to the local post office.
  • Transport to Sorting Facility: all mail is trucked to a regional mail processing center for sorting.

Day 2

  • Culling: mail is separated into letters, large envelopes (flats), and parcels.
  • Sortation: parcels are sorted into bins depending on destination.
  • Dispatch to OOE: international parcels are sent to an Outward Office of Exchange in order to be sent overseas.

Day 3

  • In transit: especially in larger countries, the trip to the OOE may be an airmail dispatch in itself.

Day 4

  • Arrival at OOE: parcels arrive and are unloaded.
  • Sortation: parcels are sorted based on destination country.
  • Marshalling: parcels are formed up into dispatches (shipments). They are put into mailbags, and a manifest listing all of the parcels and their particulars is drawn up.
  • Security screening: parcels are x-rayed, looking for anything that shouldn't be going onto an airplane.
  • Outbound Customs: parcels may be screened to prevent things from being smuggled out of the country.

Day 5

  • Load: the dispatch is loaded onto the aircraft.
  • Departure

Day 6

  • Transit: in flight

Day 7

  • Arrival: the aircraft lands at its destination.
  • Unload: the mail is unloaded. The dispatch is brought to the destination country's Incoming Office of Exchange.
  • Verification: the parcels are unpacked and their particulars verified to ensure they are all accounted for.
  • Customs: parcels are presented to Customs for inspection.
  • Release: parcels are released from Customs and returned to the postal service.

Day 8

  • Sortation: parcels are sorted based on destination.
  • Transit: mail is sent to local post offices for delivery.

Day 9

  • Final sortation: mail is sorted based on delivery routes.
  • Delivery: the happy customer, waiting patiently on their doorstep for the mailperson to arrive, receives their cherished parcel.

This all presumes everything goes smoothly; furthermore, the listed transit times are very short. In reality, transit times span many more days, and many other factors can also make things take longer:

Multi-hop routing:
Routing is a whole separate matter, but suffice it to say that "lowest cost" tends to win out over "fastest speed". Mail shipments may transit many countries enroute to their destination.

Transportation delays:
Transportation delays are not uncommon -- a truck may arrive late due to weather; a flight might be late because of a mechanical problem. However, many steps in the transportation process operate on a schedule. For instance, to get on a certain flight that departs at 11am, a parcel may need to reach the airport mail station by 1pm the day before. Missing a cutoff time means your parcel has to wait for the next dispatch, so it's easy for a delay of a few hours to turn into one of a day or more.

Mail priority and volume:
If there is more mail than available space to send it, items of higher priority win out over lower ones. As a rule, express lettermail is the highest priority, followed by express packets and parcels, then ordinary lettermail, ordinary parcels, and finally SAL. So if you are sending a parcel via registered airmail, but there is a very high volume of EMS shipments that day, there may not be room for your item, and it'll have to wait for the next flight.

During times of high mail volume, there is likely to be a backlog of shipments waiting to be sent. Your parcel, of course, starts at the back of the queue.

Customs & security delays:
Customs operates on their own schedule, and they don't care how badly you want your package. Some places open and inspect almost everything, some don't; some places process packages very efficiently, some do not.

With both Customs and security, if one item is suspicious, it may delay everything in the same dispatch.

Finally, none of the above accounts for accidents, like your parcel being misrouted, falling off a conveyor belt at one of the sortation plants, or being mistakenly left in the bottom of a mailbag. None of these are routine or common, but they all do have the potential to cause delays of several days or more.

All of the above is from my own research and may not be 100% accurate, but I think it presents a fairly good picture of the international airmail process. Hopefully this helps clear up how the mails work and why delivery times aren't as straightforward as they seem. :)

Posts: 584
Post Re: Q&A: Why does airmail take so long?
on: September 29, 2015, 04:26

How does the international mail system work? How is mail routed from one country to another?

If the above answer didn't give you enough detail on how mail is moved from place to place, read on. :)

I'm mostly going to refer to the USPS below, because they put a great deal of their operating information online. However, you can be sure that even if the specifics differ, the principles apply to other postal operators just as well.

Domestic mail handling

International airmail is processed almost exactly the same as domestic mail on each end. This video from the USPS explains the collection/sorting/dispatch/delivery sequence pretty well. It also gives you a very good idea of what kind of handling your letters and parcels need to be able to stand up to.

International air mail routing

After collection and sorting, mail is dispatched to the appropriate International Service Center to catch an airplane.

As you might expect, the Post Office chooses flights for your parcel differently than you might choose flights for yourself. Chapter 5 of USPS handbook M-22 gives the best overview I've found of international air mail routing. A simplified overview:

The overall goal of routing is to choose the most cost-effective means possible that still meets the service standard. In other words, they choose the cheapest route that gets your mailpiece there by the promised time -- not necessarily the fastest route. Moreover, the Post Office is also constrained by reliability requirements as well as political directives, as you'll see below.

Frequency: air dispatches to a given country go at least 5 days a week so long as the following volume is met:

  • an average daily volume of letters, cards, small packets, etc, of 5kg or more, or
  • parcels numbering three or more, or weighing 5kg or more.

Priority: as explained above, when making up dispatches, higher priority items get loaded first. If an aircraft needs to unload mail in order to shed weight, lower priority items get removed first.

Flight scheduling and selection: regular flights are scheduled for mail airlift, based on their ability to meet the schedule. Alternates are selected as well. This means that the Postal Service usually has a specified amount of space booked on regular flights -- they can't just put mailpieces on any flight that's headed in the right direction.

When it comes to selecting individual flights, US airlines get priority in selection, so long as they meet the service schedule. Flights are assessed as "best" to "worst" something like this:

  • single plane, nonstop
  • single plane, one stop
  • single plane, multiple stops
  • intraline service (single airline), including single flight designations that involve a change of aircraft
  • ramp-to-ramp service (guaranteed by the airline)
  • interline transfers
  • foreign flag carriers that offer usual USPS or UPU rates
  • US carriers to an intermediate country (which will then require a transit, as opposed to direct delivery to the destination country).

Preparing dispatches: the standards for how international mail dispatches are prepared can be found in the UPU Acts, specifically the Letter Post and Parcel Post volumes. Essentially:

  • items get packed into mailbags (or other such containers)
  • a manifest is drawn up and (usually) sent ahead to the destination post electronically
  • the dispatch is shipped off to the destination country's designated postal facility for receiving international mail (Office Of Exchange)
  • the receiving postal adminstration unpacks the dispatch, verifies it against the manifest, presents items to customs, etc.

SAL and Surface mail

  • SAL is only dispatched in loads of 750lbs (~350kg) or more. This probably slows it down more than the surface transportation on each side of the air lift.
  • Similarly, mail going by sea probably needs to fill a shipping container before it goes.
  • Cargo ships usually make 15-20kt through the water, which means that (for example) a direct trip from Shanghai to Vancouver or San Francisco would be around 2-3 weeks. However, while they don't really take circuitous routes per se, cargo ships often stop at many ports along the way to take on and offload cargo.
  • Much of your parcel's time is likely spent waiting for the shipping container to fill, then waiting for a suitable ship to come pick it up.

References and further reading:

Posts: 4
Post Re: Q&A: Why does airmail take so long?
on: December 26, 2015, 13:45

The tracking number RH215750448CN from December 20th 2015 till now tracking results always show "beijing's departure". Can you help me.?

The tracking number RH215750448CN from December 20th 2015 till now tracking results always show "beijing's departure". Can you help me.?

Posts: 23046
Post Re: Q&A: Why does airmail take so long?
on: December 26, 2015, 17:49

after "beijing departure", parcel will keep traveling another 2 to 5 weeks before arriving your country. you need some patient.

Posts: 8
Post Re: Q&A: Why does airmail take so long?
on: December 29, 2015, 00:51

Good informations, need patience for everyone

Posts: 1
Post Re: Q&A: Why does airmail take so long?
on: January 13, 2016, 05:14

I want the tracking information of my Parcel which have booked from Beijing on 27 Dec 2015. The tracking number is "EA200617399CN". It is not showing any track record on the EMS website. i want to know the location of my parcel where is not now? Can you provide the tracking record of this parcel and when it will receive to me?
I need this parcel urgently. we selected EMS because we heared that its a fast service. but we find it unsatisfactory

Posts: 20
Post Re: Q&A: Why does airmail take so long?
on: January 13, 2016, 07:05

Great post indeed.

We know this applies to outbound China mails. What about other countries?

Posts: 4
Post Re: Q&A: Why does airmail take so long?
on: February 5, 2016, 15:35

I count 9 days not 20 or 30 days this is obsolete info

Posts: 25
Post Re: Q&A: Why does airmail take so long?
on: February 15, 2016, 07:57

Where is my orders,when will arived in my country ?



Posts: 23046
Post Re: Q&A: Why does airmail take so long?
on: February 15, 2016, 08:17

Quote from zingspil on February 15, 2016, 07:57
Where is my orders,when will arived in my country ?



you can not know the exact location at this moment. however , you can estimate arrival time to Serbia.

first, get shipment date from

then estimate the arrival time in

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