Airmail (or air mail) is mail that is transported by aircraft. It typically arrives more quickly than surface mail, and usually costs more to send. Airmail may be the only option for sending mail to some destinations, such as overseas, if the mail cannot wait the time it would take to arrive by ship, sometimes weeks.
In June 2006 the United States Postal Service formally trademarked Air Mail (two words with capital first letters) along with Pony Express. On 14 May 2007, Air Mail was incorporated into the classification First Class Mail International.
The choice to send a letter by air is indicated either by a handwritten note on the envelope, by the use of special labels called airmail etiquettes, or by the use of specially-marked envelopes. Special postage stamps may also be available, or required; the rules vary in different countries.
The study of airmail is known as aerophilately.
Although homing pigeons had long been used to send messages (an activity known as pigeon mail), the first mail to be carried by an air vehicle was on January 7, 1785, on a balloon flight from Dover to France near Calais.
During the first aerial flight in North America by balloon on January 9, 1793, from Philadelphia to Deptford, New Jersey, Jean-Pierre Blanchard carried a personal letter from George Washington to be delivered to the owner of whatever property Blanchard happened to land on, making the flight the first delivery of air mail in the United States.
The first official air mail delivery in the United States took place on August 17, 1859, when John Wise piloted a balloon starting in Lafayette, Indiana with a destination of New York. Weather issues forced him to land in Crawfordsville, Indiana and the mail reached its final destination via train. In 1959 the U.S. Postal Service issued a 7 cent stamp commemorating the event.
Balloons also carried mail out of Paris and Metz during the Franco-Prussian War (1870), drifting over the heads of the Germans besieging those cities. Balloon mail was also carried on an 1877 flight in Nashville, Tennessee.
The introduction of the airplane in 1903 generated immediate interest in using them for mail transport, and the first official flight took place on 18 February 1911 in Allahabad, India to Naini, India, when Henri Pequet carried 6,500 letters a distance of 13 km.
In Australia, the first air mail contract was won by the fledgling Queensland and Northern Territory Aerial Services (QANTAS), commencing in November 1922. Many other flights, such as that of the Vin Fiz Flyer suffered crashes and some ended in complete disaster, but many countries had operating services by the 1920s.
The 1928 book So Disdained by Nevil Shute - a novel based on this author's deep interest in and thorough knowledge of aviation - includes a monologue by a veteran pilot, preserving the atmosphere of these pioneering times: "We used to fly on the Paris route, from Hounslow to Le Bourget and get through as best as you could. Later we moved on to Croydon. (...) We carried the much advertised Air Mails. That meant the machines had to fly whether there were passengers to be carried or not. It was left to the discertion of the pilot whether or not the flight should be canceleld in bad weather; the pilots were dead keen on flying in the most impossible conditions. Sanderson got killed this way at Douinville. And all he had in the machine was a couple of picture postcards from trippers in Paris, sent to their families as a curiosity. That was the Air Mail. No passengers or anything - just the mail.
Since stamp collecting was already a well-developed hobby by this time, collectors followed developments in airmail service closely, and went to some trouble to find out about the first flights between various destinations, and to get letters onto them. The authorities often used special cachets on the covers, and in many cases the pilot would sign them as well.
The first stamps designated specifically for airmail were issued by Italy in 1917, and used on experimental flights; they were produced by overprinting special delivery stamps. Austria also overprinted stamps for airmail in March 1918, soon followed by the first definitive stamp for airmail, issued by the United States in May 1918.
The dirigibles of the 1920s and 1930s also carried airmail, known as dirigible mail. The German zeppelins were especially visible in this role, and many countries issued special stamps for use on zeppelin mail.