Carrying more U.S. mail, Delta adds mail sorting system

Atlanta-based Delta Air Lines is seeking to expand its cargo business by carrying more mail for the U.S. Postal Service, which has grown to become one of the airline's biggest customers.

To boost its ability to handle more mail than manual sorting allows, Delta added a new automated mail sorting system for domestic mail in Atlanta, which began operations this week.

Delta exited the domestic mail business close to six years ago, when some airlines — including Delta — thought mail was not generating enough profit to justify the effort.

But Delta's chief cargo officer Neel Shah sought to regain the business after joining the airline in 2008, and the airline now has a multiyear contract to carry mail. It's a $100 million-a-year business for Delta, which carries about 2.5 million to 3 million pounds of domestic mail a week.

Shah said he has always liked mail. "I can't think of a more perfect product to put in the bellies of narrow-body aircraft," he said.

Handling mail requires the right scanning technology and performance to succeed, but mail trays fit well in cargo holds and the business is relatively stable, Shah said.

He said Delta is one of a few primary airline carriers of domestic mail, mainly first-class letters. Small packages, prohibited from being carried on passenger aircraft unless properly screened, are carried by FedEx and UPS for the Postal Service.

"This is a very, very important part of our business," Shah said.