By Patrick Winderl
The U.S. Postal Service plans to eliminate air delivery to rural areas around the country, including Montana.
Postal Service officials say they will cancel contracts with regional air carriers and, beginning in May, rely on ground transportation to handle the deliveries. The Postal Service maintains that it is more cost-effective to use trucks to ship mail to rural destinations.
Some lawmakers are worried about the effects that eliminating air service will have on local economies.
A group of congressmen, including U.S. Rep. Denny Rehberg, is expected to meet with top postal officials sometime in December to discuss the plan.
"It is troubling that the Postal Service raises rates for everyone, yet cuts service to rural communities," Rehberg said. "Timely mail service is a quality-of-life issue and it's an economic development issue."
Hill County Commissioner Kathy Bessette has written to U.S. Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., saying the proposal will cause "rural communities to become more isolated ... and have a devastating economic impact."
The Hill County commissioners are encouraging local business owners and community members to write to Congress to protest the plan.
The Postal Service relies on ASYS-R, a system of regional air carriers, to transport mail to postal facilities in rural areas. More than 100 small, independent cargo airlines have contracts with the Postal Service under the ASYS-R program. The system has been in operation since 1991.
The ASYS-R contract expired in September, but was extended until May. It is now slated to be scrapped in an effort to balance the Postal Service budget. The ASYS-R program costs $25 million annually. With deficits estimated at $1.5 billion, the Postal Service is restructuring its regional transportation systems, said Mark Saunders, a spokesman for the Postal Service in Washington, D.C.
"We are trying to cut costs wherever we can. ... We are looking at this from a strictly business perspective," he said in a telephone interview last Wednesday.
Saunders said the Postal Service will use airplanes only in exceptional circumstances.
"In inclement weather, it will sometimes be necessary to use regional air carriers. In rare instances, it will be cost-effective to transport small amounts of mail on aircraft."
Saunders said transporting mail by air costs 65 cents per pound, compared with 12 cents per pound for surface transportation.
He added that he does not believe service will be affected.
There are several key opponents to the proposal.
Kent Craford heads Save American Airmail, a coalition of air carriers and congressmen who object to the Postal Service plan.
"Their arguments for eliminating ASYS-R are clearly not valid or intelligent," Craford said. "The Postal Service obviously doesn't know that much about their own network. Frankly it's insulting.
"Congress recognizes that rural Americans pay the same for postage and therefore deserve the same level of service as the rest of the country," he added. "We look forward to working with Congress to preserve regional airmail service."
Al Desarro, transportation manager for the Postal Service in Denver, estimates that 35 percent of all mail in Montana is delivered using regional air carriers. He said that percentage was higher 11 months ago before the Postal Service began to integrate more trucks into the transportation process. Most of the mail currently carried by air is first class or has originated from a distant location, he said Monday.
"We are currently in the process of looking closely at our rural delivery areas. Analyzing that information is our number one priority. We don't want to degrade the service standard," he said.
Havre's regional mail carrier is Alpine Air, based in Provo, Utah. Gene Mallette, CEO of Alpine Air, said canceling the contracts will adversely affect small businesses by causing delays in the communications process.
"When you add a couple days on to the delivery time of mail, business is going to suffer," he said. "Every individual and every business relies on efficient and timely delivery. Everyone knows that trucks are not as fast as airplanes. It's just common sense."
According to Mallette, Alpine Air carries 1,500 pounds of mail to Havre daily.
"We carry nearly 35,000 pounds of mail to all of Montana on a daily basis," he said. Mallette also said that Alpine Air is financially dependent on the ASYS-R program.
"Our contract represents a huge portion of our revenue. In addition to the economic havoc that this will cause, the quality of service is going to decline. We need to ensure that mail service is not eroded. The Postal Service is treating rural Americans like second-class citizens, " he said.
If air service is eliminated, more than 100 companies nationwide will lose their contracts with the Postal Service. Alpine Air could be forced to lay off 65 workers in five states, Mallette said.
Havre Postmaster Rich O'Leary declined to comment on the issue.