This week's blizzard along the Eastern Seaboard has wreaked havoc with long-distance mail delivery. The Postal Service hopes to clear up a backlog of millions of pounds of letters and packages by the weekend unless another major snowstorm hits the populous corridor between Maine and Georgia.
All post offices in the East were open, and 80% of their employees were at work Wednesday. But the mail has been delayed as airlines, denied access for more than 48 hours to snow-closed airports from Washington to Boston, first concentrated on moving stranded passengers to their destinations.
About 50% of first-class mail moves by air, and the airlines bumped mail and packages in favor of passengers' luggage when they reopened Tuesday. Not until late Tuesday and Wednesday could the Postal Service get its usual access to airline cargo holds.
Los Angeles, for example, still has 8,200 pounds of mail destined for Philadelphia, which has been piled up since Sunday. Atlanta, which cleared out 500,000 pounds of mail to sites up and down the East Coast on Tuesday, has another 350,000 pounds waiting to go.
"This is a storm of historic proportions for us," Postmaster General Marvin T. Runyon Jr. said Wednesday.
The Postal Service, the biggest single customer of the domestic airline industry, moves mail on 15,000 flights daily. It was not immediately known how many of the flights had been delayed or canceled.
Passengers' luggage usually shares space in cargo holds with mail. When passenger flights resumed after two days of shutdown, all seats were filled and all cargo space was devoted to luggage. Passengers and their luggage always are given priority to mail.
The major mail hubs affected by the storm included Boston, Baltimore, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, New York, Newark, N.J., and Washington. In all these locations, mail did not move by air until late Tuesday or Wednesday as passenger service returned to a semblance of normality.
That means the Postal Service lost almost three days of air service. The result was a massive backup.
Regional offices improvised to deal with the lack of airline cargo space. Dallas used trucks to carry mail eastward, and St. Louis used Amtrak trains.
All the piled-up mail should be delivered soon. "We hope to have everything cleaned up by Saturday," said Postal Service spokesman Frank Brennan. "But everyone is holding their breath that we don't have another big storm."
Forecasters, however, are predicting a large storm for Friday, and that could lead to another round of closed airports, delayed passenger flights and bumped mail.
Airlines are essential for the mail service to meet its delivery standards, which call for three-day delivery for a first-class letter anywhere within the continental United States. Overnight service is the standard within a metropolitan region and two-day service is the standard for distances up to 600 miles.
The storm interrupted the Postal Service's steadily improving performance. Overnight delivery within a metropolitan area set a record of 88% on-time performance from Sept. 17 through Dec. 5, according to an independent audit.
Although letter carriers were working their routes Wednesday, deliveries in some areas were spotty. Thousands of curbside mailboxes were covered in snow heaped on them by snowplows on suburban streets. In some neighborhoods, mail carriers unable to navigate the drifts on side streets parked their vehicles and trudged on foot to mailboxes.
The Postal Service is appealing to residents to clear the drifts from their mailboxes and the areas in front of them. "We need help in this situation," said Brennan. "We're asking people to give us a break."