Throughout the COVID-19 crisis, posts have shown resilience and continued to provide an essential service to citizens and businesses, even though normal postal operations were significantly impacted. During the lockdown period, cross-border mail flows were disrupted due to the restrictions imposed in different countries and the drastic reduction in passenger flights. IPC played an important coordination role and put in place operational solutions to assist posts in ensuring the continuity of mail flows.

What was the biggest challenge for posts during the first lockdown?

As international travel ground to a halt, the biggest challenge for posts was the loss of the physical cross-border networks, as posts rely heavily on commercial passenger flights. Those in Europe and North America could revert to road transport in part, but it was a huge challenge for intercontinental flows. The other key challenge was the big increase in domestic e-commerce volumes, whilst coping with staff shortages and lockdowns due to local COVID-19 outbreaks. Maintaining the domestic delivery network was a challenge and all posts did a fantastic job. They really emerged as the fifth emergency or essential service and reminded all of the critical part that posts play in society.

What was the main objective of the coordination calls initiated by IPC?

Initially, we aimed at coordinating and sharing information about best practices deployed to keep operations running, as well as the safety regimes put in place, such as limiting contact at delivery by removing signature. For cross-border flows, it was essential to be able to collate and share each post’s operational status, both from an export and an import perspective. As a result of the calls, the community recognised what the shared issues were! The extended collaboration between posts across the world reinforced the belief that no post in international mail can stand alone, they all need to work together. The group went far beyond IPC’s membership, as posts around the world faced similar challenges.

What operational solutions did IPC put in place to maintain cross-border mail flows?

We put in place several solutions. Firstly, IPC chartered several cargo planes and part block-booked other flights – unofficially branded AIR IPC – between Europe and US for intercontinental flows and set up a physical road network to collect all US-bound items at a central point. We did the same for items coming from the US. Secondly, within Europe we developed a road network that could serve from as far west as Portugal, as far north as the Nordics, to as far east as Ukraine and Russia. Posts cooperated actively. These solutions were highly appreciated, resulting from the tremendous efforts of the Network and Innovation team at IPC!

What are the possible long-term consequences of the COVID-19 crisis for postal operations?

The immediate consequence is that end-to-end transit times have been stretched. Intercontinental flows remain a challenge. The cost of air transport has also risen. Prior to the crisis, posts generally used passenger aircraft for airmail transport. Since passenger air travel has been reduced by up to 90%, posts will have to find alternatives and switch to cargo flights and to road transport where feasible. How the situation will evolve will depend on how quickly passenger flights recover and how the air cargo industry responds to demand on capacity and more market-competitive pricing. Nevertheless, stretched transit times will continue for some time. 

Are we going to see more mail and packets transiting by road, rail or sea and less by air?

We can expect more transport by road and some use of rail for intracontinental flows. Transport by sea remains rare and is unlikely to become a solution for intercontinental flows due to the long travel time. Posts will be looking for better price efficiencies and more capacity availability from cargo flight operators.

What will be the consequences for the IPC services?

The COVID-19 crisis has been a test of the value of every single service we provide. I believe the IPC services proved their value during the crisis. The inherent value of IPC itself, however, really came to the fore; fast, agile and focused on business and operational needs. There may be some new IPC solutions that will arise from this crisis, for instance new road services in addition to the existing road solutions already provide and managed by IPC. 

What suffered the most during the crisis is of course the traditional letter business. It is unlikely that letter volumes will bounce back to pre-COVID-19 levels. 

The crisis has also increased the visibility of IPC outside of our membership. Up to 60 posts, accounting for 80% of global delivered traffic, were involved in our coordination activities. IPC was widely recognised as being quick to respond and providing valuable assistance, coordination, and business solutions when this was most needed.

Liam O'Sullivan, COO
Liam O'Sullivan, COO