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Grounding of planes slows mail efficiency

Payments, bills and letters that normally took a few days to be delivered are now taking double that.

By SCOTT BARANCIK

© St. Petersburg Times,
published September 14, 2001


ST. PETERSBURG -- The government's grounding of commercial aircraft this week gave new meaning to the phrase "the check's in the mail."

Paychecks, mortgage payments, credit card bills and even income tax filings sent this week through the U.S. Postal Service may arrive late. In some cases the delays may burden consumers with late fees, finance charges or other penalties.

Consider a St. Petersburg resident who mailed a check to her California-based credit card company Tuesday, expecting it to get there by a Friday payment deadline. Because the Postal Service has had to use trucks rather than airplanes this week to move first-class mail, a normal 2- to 3-day delivery is now taking 4 or 5 days, St. Petersburg Post Office spokeswoman Sue Harton said.

The result? A late fee of about $25 and a hefty finance charge worth perhaps 1.5 percent of her account balance.

Some institutions are easing up to compensate.

Wachovia Bank, which recently merged with First Union, is letting its employees determine on a case-by-case basis whether to erase a customer's bounced-check fees or other penalties. Bank of America may have an announcement later today. So far, however, few if any banks have said they would institute blanket grace periods.

The Internal Revenue Service said late Thursday that taxpayers "who have difficulty meeting their federal tax obligations because of disruption in the transportation and delivery of documents" will have until Nov. 15 to make payments such as the quarterly estimated payments that otherwise would come due Monday. The delivery delays may soon come to an end. U.S. Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta's decision Thursday to lift the ban on commercial air travel will once again allow FedEx and other commercial jet operators to resume flying. FedEx, which handles much of the Postal Service's air service, repositioned its 660-plane fleet Thursday morning and was expected to resume some flights during the evening.

But it will take a while before all U.S. airports and planes are back to full schedules. FedEx spokeswoman Carla Richards said she didn't know when the Memphis, Tenn., company would again guarantee overnight or two-day delivery.

"I can't say for sure when anything will get there," she said.

- Scott Barancik can be reached at barancik@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8751.

Mail disorder

How a first-class letter normally travels from St. Petersburg to Los Angeles, Calif.:

Delivered to the U.S. Postal Service's St. Petersburg processing and distribution center

Placed on a truck and delivered to the USPS processing center at Tampa International Airport

Placed on a passenger jet or FedEx plane under contract with USPS and flown to Los Angeles International Airport

Trucked to local distribution center, then delivered by mail carrier.

TOTAL DELIVERY TIME: 2 to 3 days

How a letter travels to Los Angeles during current crisis:

Delivered to St. Petersburg processing center

Placed on a USPS truck and delivered to Tampa airport

Placed on truck operated by a contractor and driven to Tennessee, a hub in USPS's hub-and-spoke system

Moved to another contractor truck and driven to Los Angeles airport

Trucked to local distribution center, then delivered by mail carrier

TOTAL DELIVERY TIME: 4 to 5 days

- Source: St. Petersburg processing and distribution center, U.S. Postal Service

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