Tuesday, December 10, 2002

Today, I posted a couple of Christmas presents from England to Australia. One of them was a book.

One of the curious things about international air mail, is that the cost of it varies according to what you send. There is an unrestricted "full letter rate", for which you can send anything at all, but there are two other special airmail postal rates (which both cost around half as much).

These are "printed papers", that include (to use the precise definition) advertisements, books, calendars, catalogues, diaries, directories, greetings cards, illustrations, magazines, maps, musical scores, newspapers, order/subscription forms, leaflets and pamphlets, plans, postcards, price lists, printed drawings and notices, proofs, prospectuses and timetables, but not letters, including personal messages or greetings (other than five words allowed on greetings cards), handwritten receipts, photographic negatives, slides or film, postage stamps or blank stationery.. This is what I actually used.

The second postal rate is for so called "small packets". These allow goods, gifts and trade samples, audio/video tapes, magnetic tapes, and photographs. You can include a letter, invoice or other document, if it relates to the contents of the item. .

I find this situation to be a little bizarre, to tell the truth. Can the aircraft really tell whether it is carrying newspapers rather than letters and therefore use less fuel as a consequence? I can imagine some bureaucrat of the past deciding that there is something morally virtuous about sending newspapers, and therefore letter writers should subsidise the senders of newspapers. And why precisely should some bureaucrat decide that one sort of mail is more morally virtuous than another in the first place? And why should laws actually encourage officials to open people's mail to see what is inside it?

Perhaps the logic is that letter writers should be encouraged to use thinner paper and special air mail stationery, or perhaps to send letters on microfilm, whereas it is impossible to make a newspaper or book weigh less than it does already. This does assume somehow that air transport is a scarce resource, and therefore that the total amount carried must be minimised wherever possible. I don't actually believe this. (If there is lots of mail, then I am sure that the airlines will put on extra flights, and I don't think this is bad, particularly. I am also not convinced that this differential pricing policy will ensure this. It is more likely to just ensure that people send books and newspapers (possibly with letters smuggled between the pages) rather than letters). In any event, if people want to send airmail letters on thick paper and pay extra for the privilege, I am not sure why they should be penalised (above the actual cost of carriage) for doing this.

The fact is that the various international treaties that define the International Postal Union incorporate these definitions. And treaties of this sort are so hard to unwind that we are stuck with them, however stupid they are.

To be truthful, in these days of e-mail, fax machines, and other similar technologies, it is a very long time since I actually sent an international letter. If I want to write to someone, I send them e-mail. Physical post is now used (by me) only for gifts. It may be that in a few years the letter rate will be meaningless, as nobody sends letters anymore, and the other rates simply reflect the cost of carriage. This would be good.

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