Sunday, March 31, 2013

The Old Post Office Blues

The Founding Fathers thought having a post office as a national institution was important enough to include a section in our Constitution specifically providing for its creation. Today's US Postal Service actually has roots that predate the Constitution, all the way back to 1775 when the Second Continental Congress appointed Benjamin Franklin as the first Postmaster General, so the Post Office has been an important part of the social and economic fabric of our nation since its infancy. I think the Post Office, by whatever name you call it, is still important and deserves our support to help it stay financially healthy (NOT profitable!) and fulfill its mission. But I've already told you all that in an earlier post ("The Post Office needs our help" 8-1-2012); I repeat it here just to establish my creds as a supporter so you won't think I bear any animosity toward Post Office (even though I am a little steamed at them right now).

Here's the thing: the Post Office, specifically the local post office in my home town, lost my passport! I really, truly didn't want to believe it was true so I waited longer than I should have to follow up on a letter the State Department sent saying the document had been issued and would come in a separate mailing. When I finally admitted that maybe my passport wasn't going to be delivered I called the State Department, where a very pleasant young woman quickly determined that it had in fact been mailed to me as the letter had promised. She was able to provide the mailing date and, more important, the USPS tracking number which would enable me to establish where in the postal service it might be.  She wished me luck in finding it but she didn't sound very encouraging, and she told me about the form that the State Department has for just such situations. Apparently I am not the first applicant whose passport has gone astray.

The USPS on-line tracking system is actually pretty remarkable in its own right.  Armed with the tracking number for a specific piece of mail anyone can follow that piece as it goes through all of the stages of process and delivery through the vast postal mechanism - right up until the point where it just disappears, that is.

Let me interrupt my tale here to interject a statistic provided by the USPS itself:

160 BILLION - that's 160,000,000,000 which is an incredible number (unless you are the government and are talking about money)! If the USPS were 99.99% reliable in delivery, and that would be an astounding level of reliability for ANY business, it would still lose 16 million pieces of mail a year!  But none of those should be a passport.

The State Department doesn't just drop a passport into a mail box and hope for the best. Each document is given its very own tracking number which the post office accounts for and updates at every step in the delivery process. My passport's tracking number was 9205596900893484941076 and here's its history from the minute it entered the postal stream:

Current Track & Confirm e-mail information provided by the U.S. Postal Service.

Label Number: 9205 5969 0089 3484 9410 76

Shipment Activity Location Date & Time
Delivery status not 03/01/13 10:34pm

Out for Delivery FREEPORT ME 04032 03/01/13 8:34am

Sorting Complete FREEPORT ME 04032 03/01/13 8:24am

Arrival at Post Office FREEPORT ME 04032 03/01/13 7:18am

Depart USPS Sort SCARBOROUGH ME 04074 03/01/13

Processed through USPS SCARBOROUGH ME 04074 03/01/13 12:34am
Sort Facility

Depart USPS Sort LITTLE ROCK AR 72231 02/28/13

Processed at USPS LITTLE ROCK AR 72231 02/27/13 7:32pm
Origin Sort Facility

Accepted at USPS HOT SPRINGS NATIONAL PARK AR 71913 02/27/13 6:17pm
Origin Sort Facility

Electronic Shipping 02/27/13
Info Received


Do you see what happened there? The passport was mailed in Hot Springs, Arkansas (really?) on 2/27/2013, arrived in Maine only two days later and on the same day was sent on to my local P.O., where the trail ends - "Delivery status not updated". How is this even possible?!

I went to the post office to see what they could do to find my passport and the answer was, "not much". The mail clerk I spoke with made a perfunctory search in a few bins before she turned the matter over to the postmaster, who in turn asked my rural carrier, all to no avail. "Sorry, we don't know what happened to it and there's nothing we can do. You'll have to contact the passport office to have them send another one."

Okay, I'm a little steamed as previously announced, but there is something that I don't understand. If you have a tracking system and it reports "Delivery status not updated", why do you not immediately go to the last person who handled the item to see what's going on? When the postmaster called me to acknowledge that the passport was well and truly lost, she said. "It was human error, we just don't know what human"! It seems to me that a timely inquiry when the status was not updated would have helped her determine that. I'm not looking to place any blame here but what's the sense of having a tracking system if you don't follow up on what it reports to you? The local post office is not that big a place and I'll bet that if somebody had gone looking for my passport right after it went missing, they would have found it.

It's enough to make me wish the State Department had sent my passport via Federal Express. I guess I just have "the old post office blues", but I'm sure I'll get over them.


  1. The next to last update says "out for delivery." This means that it got onto a mail truck to be delivered.Priority mail doesn't require a signature, but it left the building.

    1. Z - Thanks for visiting and thanks for the comment! So it would seem my rural carrier might be the one who "dropped the ball"?

  2. Two items by way of update:

    I received my replacement passport within a couple of weeks of filing the appropriate form - it was delivered via UPS.

    I have filed a complaint with USPS so somebody in postal officialdom will look into what happened - I'm not optimistic that anything will come of it but I couldn't just let it slide without bitching to someone. I just hope they don't lay it all on the carrier since management clearly dropped the ball in following up in timely fashion.