Trading off speed for reliability, the Postal Service plans this summer to eliminate overnight delivery of first-class mail for millions of Americans. When a letter is sent a short distance the Postal Service's goal is to deliver it overnight; that distance varies from place to place, but in many locations it includes mail within a city.
Starting this summer, the postmaster general said, the boundaries of the areas in which mail is supposed to be delivered within one day will shrink, affecting from 4 percent to 7 percent of letters.
Express Mail, the service's premium overnight service, is not affected.
At the same time, postal officials say, the service expects to raise its standard of reliability so that more mail will be delivered without the serious delays that have occurred.
The changes are to take place at a time when the Postal Service is seeking a 20 percent increase in the basic first-class postage rate, to 30 cents from 25 cents, to catch up with the rising cost of health-care benefits and other labor expenses that are expected to produce a record $1.6-billion deficit this year.
Last year the service delivered 85.8-billion pieces of first-class mail.
Postmaster General Anthony M. Frank said he was not pleased about the size of the increase but it was necessary to meet the statutory requirement that the service be self-supporting.
In the 1980s, there were five years with deficits and five with surpluses.
"We are user-paid _ to the penny," Frank said of the Postal Service, which was separated from the government in 1971 and receives no tax support.
Rate increases require approval of the Postal Rate Commission, a federal agency.
Frank played down the importance of what he called the pulling back of one-day deliveries, to begin June 30.
"It's not a degradation of service," he said. In exchange for slower delivery of some mail, he added, "we've got to have better consistency."
The change would mean a letter mailed on Tuesday to a destination in the same city would be delivered Thursday instead of Wednesday.
Frank said that last year the new standards, including reduction in one-day deliveries, were introduced in the New York metropolitan area as an experiment and they had produced almost no complaint.
Elsewhere the effect is expected to be modest, though some newspapers and other publications have strenuously opposed the change because it could mean a loss in timeliness for their subscribers.
These adjustments in standards, the first in 20 years, are the result, in part, of new roads and population growth and, in part, are a response to customer surveys.
While customers appreciate fast delivery, the Postal Service found, "for first-class mail to be considered excellent, it must meet specific delivery times with a high degree of consistency."