Despite slower mail, Postal Service still makes the grade

Posted: Monday, February 25, 2002

FAIRBANKS (AP) -- The way Alaska's mail comes and goes, within the state and to the Outside, changed dramatically following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. But the state Postal Service still gets A-minus and B-plus grades in official tests.

While the Federal Aviation Administration ban on all air traffic for a couple of days in September caused a huge but temporary backlog in mail, one FAA decision caused a permanent effect that postal officials are now dealing with every day.

Mail used to leave the state on 30 commercial flights daily from Anchorage. Now there are only two charter planes that can transport mail. After Sept. 11, the FAA ruled that mail could not be flown on passenger planes with more than 61 seats, so the Postal Service switched to chartered airlines. The only exception is Bush mail, which continues to fly with passengers on small airplanes.

In Fairbanks, this means one outbound mail plane flies to Anchorage at midnight. Mail that doesn't fit on the night flight now must be carted to Anchorage in trucks, departing Fairbanks at 6 a.m.

This cutback in flight options within the state and to the Lower 48 has slowed mail delivery slightly and made Fairbanks Postmaster Raymond Clark bristle at the frustrations that accompany the changes. Some patrons have noticed differences as well.

Cartoonist Chad Carpenter of Eagle River counts on the U.S. mail to get his ''Tundra'' cartoon strip to the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner and eight other newspapers. He mails his parcels from the airport post office in Anchorage and has discovered that since September the mail isn't always predictable. Twice, he noted, priority envelopes took a week to arrive in Fairbanks.

''Normally it's two days from Anchorage to Fairbanks,'' Carpenter said, ''especially since I take it to the airport post office.''

Regardless of the new rules, when it comes to mail service, Alaska still gets good grades. Still, there is room for improvement, Clark said.

Test results for Alaska from December -- rating mail service for the last quarter of 2001 -- show that priority mail arrives on time 89.47 percent of the time and first class mail 92.29 percent, as set by Postal Service standards. The figures, which put Fairbanks ahead of the national average by a slight margin, are about the same as they usually are, Clark said, even though shipping methods have changed.

''They don't fluctuate much,'' he said of the test results. ''They're pretty solid scores.''

Postal Service standards, published on a CD-ROM map by ZIP code, set a goal of two days for deliveries of first class mail within the top half of Alaska -- from Fairbanks north -- and three days for everywhere else in the nation, including the rest of the state. Those figures may not be attainable, Clark said, considering Alaska's distance from the rest of the nation and the remote locations served by the Fairbanks post offices.

''I'm not happy,'' Clark said. ''I would like to say that 95 percent of the time we meet that three-day standard.''

A possible reason for mail getting held up once it reaches the Lower 48 is that the Postal Service began to use trains and trucks for mail delivery more there since September.

In-state, there are only two reasons, mechanical failures and weather, according to Clark. Fairbanks doesn't have the high-speed automation that many post offices Outside have. ''A real set of eyes looks at each piece of mail,'' Clark said.

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