Air Courier Services

SIC 4513

Industry report:

Establishments primarily engaged in undertaking the transportation of goods from shippers to receivers for charges covering the entire transportation but making use of other transportation establishments for delivery, are classified in SIC 4731: Arrangement of Transportation of Freight and Cargo.

Industry Snapshot

According to Hoover's, 7,500 U.S. companies generated revenues of $70 billion in the express delivery services industry in 2011. The top two companies, FedEx and United Parcel Service (UPS), accounted for about 80 percent of total revenues. Air cargo was an important sector of the industry. As defined by the Air Transport Association (ATA), cargo is the total volume of freight, mail, and express traffic. The air courier division includes both freight (generally under 150 pounds) and express mail. As defined by the ATA, freight and express mail are commodities of all kinds, including small packages, counter service, express service, and priority-reserved freight. Air courier service does not include the delivery of U.S. mail.

In general, two kinds of companies have provided air courier service in the United States. First have been the integrators or all-cargo companies, such as FedEx and United Parcel Service (UPS). These companies have a fleet of planes, carry cargo only, usually fly at night, and have ground transportation and personnel for door-to-door pick up and delivery. Integrators control 90 percent of the domestic market for envelopes, packages, and freight.

Air courier service also has been provided by passenger airlines, such as American Airlines. These companies transport cargo (freight, express, and mail) in the holds of their passenger aircraft. They fly during the day, since passenger traffic is their first priority. Passenger airlines have provided service similar to integrators, except most airlines have to subcontract ground transportation. Airlines also provide airport-to-airport deliveries.

Eleven passenger airlines once included all-cargo aircraft in their fleets. By 2007, Northwest Airlines, with 14 B747s, was the only U.S. passenger airline operating all-cargo equipment. The other 10 airlines retired the all-cargo aircraft from their fleets by the end of 1984.

Both major integrators and combination carriers have worked with air forwarders to provide shipping services. Air forwarders are companies that arrange the complete shipping process and receive charges for the entire transportation. These companies do not own or operate aircraft and have to purchase space on the planes of airlines or integrators for their packages. Although air forwarders were the precursor to the air courier industry, these companies are not represented in this industry but are classified in SIC 4731: Arrangement of Transportation of Freight and Cargo.
Companies within the freight/express mail division of the air cargo industry have offered various services related to time-sensitive delivery conditions. Customers can request next-morning or afternoon delivery, same-day service, or second-day delivery. Most international express services require a few days for delivery, depending upon the country's customs procedures and regulations.

Background and Development

The U.S. airmail system was the forerunner to the air courier industry (or express mail industry). The U.S. airmail system also spurred the growth of the air passenger industry and the creation of the modern airlines. Yet the air courier industry and the time-sensitive delivery of letters and parcels remained dormant until the late 1970s.

Prior to deregulation of the air cargo industry in 1977, air transport of packages was made by the U.S. Postal Service or air forwarders. Time-sensitive shipments were not possible because air forwarders did not operate their own planes and had to depend upon the scheduled service of the airlines.

Following deregulation, the air cargo industry experienced dramatic changes, as air forwarders and ground transportation operators acquired their own aircraft and became integrators. Some passenger airlines also began to pick up market share, but it was the all-cargo carriers (or integrators) that created the express delivery service that has been most commonly known as air courier service.

Creation of the Hub System.
The modern air courier industry and its large scale, overnight deliveries were made possible by the development of the hub system. FedEx initiated the hub system, which remains the standard operating method in use.

Using this system, all freight is originally shipped to the company's central hub, where it is sorted and rerouted to its final destination. As the air courier industry grew, some regional hubs formed to serve particular areas of the country. Integrators as well as passenger airlines use the hub-and-spoke system.

The rapid growth of the air courier industry during the 1980s was primarily due to the success of express delivery service. Integrators dominated this particular service. From 1982 to 1990, the domestic air express market grew at an annual rate of nearly 19 percent. In 1999, the air express industry continued to grow, along with air cargo. Air express deliveries accounted for 60 percent of air shipments in 1998, with overnight letters and envelopes accounting for 27 percent of the industry in both shipments and revenues.

A flurry of overnight express companies appeared on the scene during the 1980s. By 1992, only seven significant air carriers remained in the express service business. Five companies continued to dominate the category in the mid-years of the first decade of the 2000s. The U.S. Postal Service (USPS) was the world's largest air-and-ground package delivery company, offering express mail along with other options. FedEx was the world leader in the overnight package delivery market. United Parcel Service (UPS) was the second largest express courier service. DHL was the world's largest and most experienced international air express network. Airborne Express was the third largest air express carrier.

Many analysts have considered the status of the air freight industry as a vanguard of the direction of the overall economy. During tight economic times, people cut costs by using the more economical two-day delivery service. As conditions improve, traffic in the more expensive, priority overnight service increases.

A Mature Market.
Compared to growth rates of the 1980s, the cargo industry (freight, express, and mail) had slowed by the early 1990s. For example, annual growth in 1990 was 2.2 percent, compared to the 7 percent annual rate during the 1980s. Part of the slower growth rate was due not only to the recession but also to the use of long-range cargo aircraft in the Persian Gulf War.

By 1993, a general upturn in air cargo was reported in both domestic and international markets. Moreover, steady growth in express, or courier, service was predicted for the next decade, especially in the international arena. In 1996, air cargo traffic was at a 10-year high, and air cargo was up 30.5 percent from September 1995 to September 1996. All major air express carriers experienced growth in the late 1990s.

As the express service industry continued to mature, integrators turned to service refinements as a competitive tool. Services such as guaranteed early morning or afternoon deliveries became common. Second-day service was expanded, and weight limits were raised. Extensive tracking processes and communications networks were established to automate billing and accounting services for customers.

The integrators continued to dominate market share of the express service industry, as most U.S. combination carriers continued to treat cargo as a secondary service. Although most airlines could compete head-to-head with integrators, they had not done so by the mid-2000s. While airlines have emphasized improved customer service, some attempted to gain a foothold in the small shipment sector.

According to the Colography Group, an Atlanta-based research firm specializing in the air freight and air express industries, there were 2.8 billion domestic air shipments made in 1998. The U.S. Postal Service (USPS) moved 1.3 billion Express and Priority Mail parcels and represented 45 percent of the domestic market. In late 1999, the USPS announced an affiliation with DHL Worldwide Inc. for expedited global service to 65 countries.

The 1998 industry realized a modest overall 7.6 percent increase from 1997. FedEx captured 25.6 percent of the public market, followed by UPS at 15.6 percent, and Airborne Express at 11.3 percent, but the lion's share of the market remained with the USPS. As of 1999, there were 18 listed companies operating in the air courier industry, three of which were publicly held.

Freight and express cargo revenue ton-miles fell from 21.1 billion in 2000 to 20.1 billion in 2001. This 6.2 percent decline in cargo volume caused operating revenues for the freight and express segment of the cargo industry to fall 4.8 percent from $12.2 billion to $11.9 billion over the same time. The mail segment of the cargo industry experienced a steep 22.8 percent decline in volume, with revenue ton-miles falling from 2.1 billion in 2000 to 1.8 billion in 2001. Mail operating revenues plummeted 46.3 percent, from $1.9 billion to just over $1 billion. International cargo traffic, which represents nearly 60 percent of total traffic, dropped 6.3 percent, while domestic revenue ton-miles declined 10.1 percent.

The decline in volume and revenues for the industry reflected heightened security efforts that were put in place after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the United States and subsequent reports of mail laced with anthrax. The weakened global economy early in the twenty-first century also caused a slowdown for the industry. Mail cargo experienced a sharper revenue decline than freight and express cargo partly because of a 30.5 percent price decrease for mail shipments in 2001, compared to a 1.6 percent jump in freight shipment prices.

During 2002 and 2003, the air courier industry continued to react to the economic environment. Commerce slowly began to rebuild, and by 2004, the economy was reenergized by low interest rates, higher consumer confidence, and increased activity in the manufacturing and industrial sectors. Air cargo volume, which had fallen to 21.1 billion revenue miles in 2001, increased to 24.6 billion and 25.9 billion revenue miles in 2002 and 2003, respectively.

Because distribution methods were shifting, with about 75 percent of all cargo delivered from within 750 miles of its destination, ground-based domestic express service grew during 2004 while air-based domestic express service remained flat. Shorter hauling distances allowed companies to rely on less-expensive truck delivery rather than costly air transportation. According to the research firm Colography Group, Inc., as reported by Ed McKenna in Traffic World in April 2005, ground parcel held 52.6 percent of the market share of the U.S. domestic expedited cargo in 2000; domestic air, 43.9 percent; export air, 1.3 percent; and less-than-truckload shipments (LTL), 2.2 percent. By 2005, ground parcel's market share was projected to grow to 60.8 percent while domestic air was expected to fall to 36 percent with export air and LTL remaining stable.

Also hurting air-based delivery service was the high cost of jet fuel, which reached $1.62 a gallon in March 2005, up from $1.37 per gallon in February and up one-third from March 2004. UPS and FedEx imposed fuel surcharges to help cover the added operating expense, thus increasing the cost of shipping by air. Fuel surcharges on air cargo in 2004 ran about 9 percent, but FedEx's rate reached as high as 13 percent in December 2004. Ground-based fuel charges were re-introduced but only reached about 2 percent.

FedEx confirmed the trend toward ground-based domestic delivery in its assessment of operations. Although the company increased revenues annually during the first half of the first decade of the 2000s, much of its sales growth was generated by the expansion of its freight and ground services. According to FedEx, domestic express deliveries remained relatively flat during 2004.

Despite the relative stagnation of domestic air express, UPS, which already dominated the ground delivery segment, worked in the mid-2000s to expand its air-based services, hoping to horn in on FedEx's specialty at the same time that FedEx increased its truck-based operations. UPS invested heavily in upgrading its aircraft capacity to become a significant presence in the next-day air service segment. In 2004, the company took delivery of 12 new aircraft, adding to its fleet of 600 aircraft (FedEx has a fleet of 671 aircraft). UPS planned to introduce another 63 planes through 2009 and held an option to buy another 60 aircraft.

Although the U.S. air cargo market remained flat during the mid-2000s, UPS and FedEx, which controlled 78 percent of the overnight delivery industry, each found strong growth potential in their international sectors, with a special focus on expanding operations in China. In 2004, FedEx vastly increased operations in China, including opening a new regional headquarters in Shanghai. FedEx gained approval from the Department of Transportation for 12 additional weekly flights to China, bringing the number of weekly trips to 23, the most of any cargo carrier. In 2005, FedEx also began flying direct routes between China and Europe, which is China's top trading partner. As more routes become available, FedEx was expected to be in prime position to benefit from the rapidly expanding trade relationship with China and the rest of the world. In 2005, FedEx had twice as many landing spots in China as did UPS. In 2006, FedEx was the first express delivery company to fly direct to India, and by 2007 its expanded routes included 4,400 Indian cities and towns.

Not to be left behind, however, UPS also rapidly expanded its presence in China during the mid-2000s. Late in 2004, UPS opened three new warehouse and distribution centers in Shanghai, Suzhou, and Futian, with plans to open 10 more facilities in 2005 and an additional 10 in 2006. The planned addition of 10 Airbus A380 Freighters and 11 Boeing MD-11 freighters was expected to help facilitate UPS's expansion efforts.

The Air Cargo Management Group reported in its 2007 US Domestic Air Freight and Express Industry Performance Analysis that the U.S. industry was continuing to show revenue gains. According to the report, industry revenue reached $32.49 billion in 2006. Despite revenue gains, however, the industry operated below 2000 levels due in part to high fuel costs and shipping rate increases put in place in early 2007.

According to the Air Transport Association (ATA), cargo services (freight, express, and mail) reached 28.4 billion revenue ton miles in 2008. A revenue ton mile (RTM) is one ton of revenue traffic transported one mile. Revenues from domestic air freight and express reached $31.3 billion in 2005, an industry record, according to the Air Cargo Management Group, a Seattle-based industry consulting and research firm. However, the global economic recession of 2008 resulted in a slight decrease of industry revenue to approximately $30 billion.

Current Conditions

According to the Federal Aviation Administration, worldwide air cargo demand picked up in 2010 after suffering from the economic recession of the late 2000s. In the first 10 months of 2010, worldwide freight ton kilometers were up 21.9 percent, as compared to a 12.7 percent drop for the same period in 2009.

In the United States, air carriers flew 35.9 billion revenue ton miles (RTMs) in 2010, up 15.7 percent from 2009. Domestic cargo increased 8 percent to 12.8 billion RTMs. According to the FAA Aerospace Forecast in 2010, "The strong growth in domestic and international RTMs reflects a rebound from the recession and the global financial crisis, although RTMS are still 11.4 percent below levels posted in 2007."

Other figures from the Airports International Council showed that the airport that received the most air cargo (freight, express, and mail) in 2010 was Memphis, with 1.9 million tons of cargo. Anchorage came in second, with approximately 1.1 million tons that year. Louisville, Miami, and Los Angeles rounded out the top five.

Industry Leaders

FedEx.
In 2011, FedEx was the largest international express carrier in the United States. Each day, FedEx handled more than 6.5 million shipments through its express, ground, freight, and expedited delivery services. FedEx Express, the company's express delivery segment, had an average daily volume of 3.5 million items.

The company began operations in 1973 and created the hub system of distribution. By 2011, FedEx had about 143,000 employees and contractors worldwide and served 220 countries. It operated 690 aircraft and 50,000 vehicles. FedEx' headquarters were located in Memphis, Tennessee. In 2004, FedEx purchased Kinko's Office and Print Services for $2.4 billion, and by 2011 the firm had more than 2,000 retail locations around the world.

FedEx was also the industry leader in various technological advances. The company was the first to develop a computerized tracking system that could tell where any package was at any time from pick-up to delivery. FedEx created the customer service system with 32 call centers worldwide that handled 300,000 calls daily. The company also developed the digitally assisted dispatch system (DADS), which communicated to couriers through computers in their vans. In 2008, revenues reached $24.7 billion. FedEx became a publicly held company in 1978 and was listed on the New York Stock Exchange. Total revenues for FedEx reached $39.3 billion in 2011.

United Parcel Service.
United Parcel Service (UPS), headquartered in Atlanta, Georgia, was the world's largest package delivery company .The company was founded in Seattle, Washington in 1907, furnishing messengers for errand service. In 1913 the company merged with a competitor and took its name, Merchants Parcel Delivery, reflecting its concentration on retail packages. In 1919, the company changed its name to United Parcel Service (UPS) in the process of expanding its business into California and eventually to all of the West Coast.

In 1929, UPS began air delivery along the West Coast, but its airline, called United Air Express, ended operations in 1931 due to the depressed economy. During the 1930s and 1940s, the company concentrated on retail delivery service and opened major urban areas in the Midwest and eastern United States. UPS renewed its air service in 1953, and major cities on the East and West Coasts became connected with two-day service. By 1975, UPS had become the first company to serve every address in the 48 contiguous states.

UPS entered the overnight delivery business in 1982, offering UPS Next Day Air to 24 major metropolitan areas. UPS was already the largest carrier of packages in the United States, but the packages were primarily transported by ground service. In the late 2000s, UPS delivered more than 1.78 million express mail packages a day by air, with UPS Next Day Air and 2nd Day Air Services combined. The company served more than 200 countries and territories and every address in the United States. With 428,000 employees, UPS operated 94,500 vehicles, including package cars, vans, tractors, and trailers, and about 282 aircraft. In 2006, UPS delivered nearly 4 billion packages, the highest number in its history, and began a $1 billion, five-year expansion of its flagship air hub in Louisville, Kentucky, to increase package sorting capacity by 60 percent. By 2011, the firm owned 93,000 motor vehicles and 500 aircraft and delivered in 220 countries. That year, the company reported revenue of $49.5 billion and 400,600 employees.

DHL Worldwide Express.
In the late 2000s, DHL was the carrier with the most worldwide coverage, operating 4,700 offices around the globe. DHL employed 124,280 people in its Express Division and served 120,000 destinations in over 220 countries and territories with its fleet of roughly 420 aircraft and 72,000 trucks and vans handling more than 1 billion global shipments each year. The company worked out of 36 hubs and 4,700 bases. DHL's domestic hub was at the Greater Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky Airport. It became a subsidiary of Belgium-based Deutsche Post, the world's largest air freight carrier, in 2002.

DHL Airways, Inc. was founded in 1969 by Adrian Dalsey, Larry Hillblom, and Robert Lynn (hence DHL) as a shuttle service between Hawaii and San Francisco. In 1971, the company was the first international air express company to provide service to the Pacific Rim, starting with the Philippines. Service was extended to Japan, Hong Kong, Singapore, and Australia in 1972. DHL moved into Europe in 1974, Latin America in 1976, the Middle East in 1977, and Africa in 1978. It was the first company to bring air express service to the Eastern bloc countries in 1983 and to the People's Republic of China in 1988. The DHL Worldwide Express network was part of both DHL Airways Inc., based in Redwood City, California, which provided service to the United States and its territories, and DHL International, Ltd. in Brussels, which operated in all other areas of the world. Japan Airlines and the German airline Lufthansa each owned 25 percent of DHL International, and the Japanese securities firm, Nissho Iwai, owned an additional 7.5 percent. The estate of the company's late cofounder, Larry Lee Hillblom, owned 60 percent of DHL Airways and 24 percent of DHL International. In 1999, DHL announced a deal with the Boeing Company for the long-term lease of 44 Boeing 757 special freighters to assist with the expanding global express delivery market.

In 2003, DHL added to its North American operations with the purchase of rival Airborne Express, which was the third largest air express carrier in the United States, second only to FedEx and UPS. Airborne operated its own airline, ABX Air, Inc., with 120 planes in its fleet and its own ground transportation vehicles. It was the only U.S. air cargo company to own an airport. The Airborne corporate office was in Seattle, Washington.

Airborne Express operated as a freight forwarder until 1980, when it expanded into an overnight air express company. The company, initially called Pacific Air Freight, merged with Airborne Freight Corporation of California in 1968, taking the Airborne name. The company first began operations by leasing the services of Midwest Air Charter in Wilmington, Ohio. With deregulation in 1977, Airborne began to purchase its own fleet of aircraft, which reduced the company's dependence on chartered space on other airlines. In 1980, Airborne acquired Midwest Air Charter and the Wilmington Airport, and turned the property into the company's hub airport. In 1995, the company expanded its fleet with the acquisition of Boeing 767-200 aircraft and opened a second runway. It also formed Airborne Alliance Group, a consortium of transportation, logistics, third-party customer service operations, and high-tech companies providing value-added services.

In the mid-2000s, DHL's revenues skyrocketed, after the $1.05 billion acquisition of Airborne, from $6 billion in 2001 to $27.57 billion in 2004. Its extensive brand awareness campaign during 2004 and 2005, which included repainting 17,000 trucks red and yellow, increased consumer recognition and helped the company make a small dent in the firm grip that FedEx and UPS had on the express delivery market. In 2004, DHL's U.S. shipment volume increased 3 percent and its overall market share rose 1 percent to 8 percent. Although DHL held the highest market share globally, in the mid-2000s it held only 2 percent of the U.S. market share. In 2009 its parent company halted all of its air and ground services within the United States, although the firm continued to offer international shipping services to and from the nation.

Research and Technology

Advances in computer technology, software development, and the communications industry provided the air courier industry with the necessary tools for efficient and timely functions related to all aspects of operations. Everything from hand-held computers, to online real-time data systems allowed air courier companies to communicate more effectively with ground personnel and their customers. Continued advances were expected to bring additional automation and provide improved accuracy in delivery and billing, as well as improved service to the customer.

Electronic Data Interchange.
Electronic Data Interchange (EDI) is a computer-to-computer exchange of information between businesses. This information, including inventories and purchase orders, travels over phone lines. Many overnight delivery companies developed their own personal computer (PC)-based EDI systems to use at their client sites. For example, in the late 2000s, UPS's Maxi-Ship system consisted of a PC, UPS-developed EDI software, and a printer. The system enabled clients to produce all shipping documentation and manage all cost accounting within their own offices.

FedEx's system, PowerShip, was an internally developed computer system that allowed customers to generate their own billing labels and invoices and track their packages through the FedEx delivery system. The FedEx EDI system resolved the paperwork problem, which was identified by their salespeople as a burdensome task, by performing four customer functions. First, it generated the shipping label. Second, it printed a manifest of what was shipped at the end of each day. An invoice was automatically generated, and shipping charges were accrued and sent to the home office system for billing procedures. The third function was an array of shipping management and reporting. Finally, PowerShip allowed customers to access the FedEx computerized package-tracking system. Individuals with access to the Internet could track their own packages online, using the FedEx Web site.

Cellular Technology/UPSnet.
UPS entered the cellular market with the development of one of the first cellular data networks in the country. The system, called UPSnet, transmits air and ground package delivery information in real-time that can be accessed by any ground transportation vehicle anywhere in the country.

To process delivery data for transmission on UPSnet, a driver first obtains a customer signature on a Delivery Information Acquisition Device (DIAD), a hand-held computer that captures signatures electronically. Next, the driver attaches the DIAD to UPS's DIAD Vehicle Adapter, which is inserted in a cellular telephone modem in the truck. The modem then transmits the information from an external transceiver on board to cellular switches provided by four different cellular carriers and to a UPSnet packet switch. The information is transmitted to a mainframe system at the UPS worldwide data center in Mahwah, New Jersey.

Teller Machines Drop-Off Boxes.
FedEx introduced a self-service center based on Automated Teller Machine (ATM) technology. Anyone with a credit card or a prearranged FedEx account number could drop off an overnight letter or small package at this self-service center at any time. All labeling and billing would be executed on a touch-screen terminal similar to a bank ATM. The system, known as FedEx Online, has a touch screen video display terminal that offers computer menus for making an address label or choosing either next-day or two-day delivery service. Payment is made by running a credit card through a magnetic slot. The self-serve center processes the information, sends it over telephone lines to a local or regional database computer that authorizes the credit card transactions, stamps a time on the bar-coded address label, and confirms the delivery address for the customer.

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