Keeping the mail moving: an interview with the UPU’s Director of Postal Operations

Abdelilah Bousseta, the UPU’s Director of Postal Operations and head of the Operational Continuity Unit, explains the challenges and lessons learned in keeping the mail moving during a global pandemic.

Union Postale: We’ve seen COVID-19 described as among the most challenging crisis since the Second World War. What impact has this had on the postal operators, their supply chain partners and the UPU?

Abdelilah Bousseta: The COVID-19 crisis is having a substantial impact on postal operators, their supply chain partners, the UPU and the whole postal industry. These impacts will not go away with the pandemic – they will have a lasting effect on the UPU and the postal industry going forward. The crisis has highlighted the fact that the Posts are an essential component of the global economy, providing a lifeline to all inhabitants of the world. Posts are critical not only for delivering traditional letter-post, parcel-post and express services but also for delivering medicine, remittances, government payments and are even called upon to facilitate voting in elections. Throughout this pandemic period, the UPU’s mission of “securing the organization and improvement of postal services and promoting international collaboration” is proving to be especially relevant. The UPU’s secretariat has been coordinating and ensuring the continuation of vital communications between postal stakeholders, and has been finding solutions to help UPU member countries to keep the mail moving.

What were some of the toughest operational challenges the postal sector has faced during this crisis?

The biggest challenge to overcome has been to keep the mail moving. The COVID-19 crisis has put unprecedented pressure on the international postal network. Though many countries consider Posts an essential service, allowing them to continue their operations despite countrywide lockdowns, the UPU has processed urgent messages from 137 UPU member countries in relation to the pandemic. The messages have signaled service disruptions related to measures taken to halt the spread of COVID-19, such as flight cancellations and social distancing. This has lengthened delivery times in some postal corridors and closed others altogether.

International mail flows in particular have been affected by the cancellation of international flights and closure of airports. The postal network relies heavily on passenger airlines to transport mail.

In response to these disruptions, the UPU contacted postal operators inviting them to reach out to their surface cargo providers and to share any information on available transport capacity, including rail, sea and road. We have also been in communication with new carriers providing different modes of transport to ask them to consider cooperating with Posts. The UPU has encouraged postal operators and carriers to work together and to uphold the keystone universal service obligation – or USO – which seeks to provide everyone on this planet with post.

These information-sharing initiatives have resulted in an impressive number of innovations and new methods of transport over land, sea and air. In partnership with the International Air Transport Association (IATA), the UPU has encouraged governments to fast-track procedures and relax restrictions to keep air cargo supply lines, including mail transport, open in the wake of widespread passenger flight cancellations. The UPU has also worked closely with postal operators and railway organizations to turn the pilot studies into a viable reality.

Given the current situation, the train network is one of the alternative options for moving the huge volumes of mail between Asia and Europe. Between the middle of March and today, 21 mail-only block trains have transported nearly 8,000 tons of mail. The use of trains to deliver mail is a success for the Universal Postal Union.

Surface transportation by road and sea are other effective means we have established to supplement air transport, and they are now becoming more and more important elements of international postal network.

You’ve established a special Operational Continuity Unit to help deal with the crisis – what has been its mission during the pandemic?

At the beginning of the pandemic, the UPU’s Directorate of Postal Operations (DOP) quickly set to work to ensure that the mail – not only letters, but medicines, medical equipment and other essential goods – could keep moving despite the worldwide crisis. Our work spans across three dimensions.

The first step was to put in place a mechanism to monitor the situation. We achieved this by creating the Operational Continuity Unit (OCU), which comprises experts covering different areas from transport and security, to IT and quality of service. The transversal team meets daily to coordinate the UPU’s actions on operational issues related to the pandemic.

This leads to the second part of our mission, which has been to mitigate the impact of the crisis on postal operations. This is where our energy is focused at the moment.

For example, the team has developed a dedicated table listing all operational measures taken by Posts as a result of COVID-19. This table is available on a central database available to all member countries and allows them quick and easy access to see data by country.

Another significant aspect of our work has been assisting with transport issues. The OCU has been looking for alternatives to help airlift postal item dispatches held in the Offices of Exchange (OEs), providing up-to-date information on the current availability and status of air cargo carriers, information on border crossing status for road transport, networking with a new supply chain partners and the supporting the creation of new routes. We’ve prepared a table consolidating all alternative transport information available to us, including new solutions by rail, cargo flights and sea routes and have provided promotion and legal advice on other alternative routes.

Together, we have been able to coordinate the first mail-only block train from China to Europe, carrying thousands of tons of mail. Through close cooperation with supply chain partners, the UPU was able to establish a legal framework and sort out operational issues to establish this new route, which has helped keep mail flowing between the continents.

Continue reading this interview in our latest edition of Union Postale.