SEATTLE — What can you do if overnight mail isn't fast enough?
Until we are able to beam items around the country Star Trek-style, the answer is same-day or next-flight-out delivery services.
Even though same-day service typically carries a hefty price tag of $150 or more for an item, more and more people are choosing it in this era of instant communication.
Whether it's a replacement part for a computer, a briefcase left behind, or that party dress you forgot in your closet 2,000 miles away, same-day mail service is coming into its own.
The same-day airmail market is currently up to a $1 billion-a-year industry, estimates the Atlanta-based United Parcel Service. This includes services airlines offer as well as door-to-door couriers.
Both Federal Express of Memphis and UPS have entered the same-day market. In April, UPS began marketing its service through SonicAir, a Scottsdale, Ariz., subsidiary it purchased this year. In June, Federal Express joined the fray through an alliance with Network Courier Services of Los Angeles.
Analysts say the entries of FedEx and UPS into the game could accelerate industry growth by sheer marketing clout. ''We may triple or quadruple [SonicAir's] business in a short time,'' UPS spokesman Ken Sternad says.
What's driving these moves is not just the size of the market, but the fact that the package-delivery giants must offer a full range of services to keep their key clients.
''You cannot tell your major customers that you cannot do their most critical deliveries,'' says Don Smith, general manager of Reston, Va.,-based Sky Courier, the same-day service Airborne Express of Seattle offers. Most of Airborne Express's business is sending parts for manufacturing, medicine, and computer industries.
But there are other, more exotic purposes for same-day service. A woman, invited impromptu to a fancy dinner, had an $8,000 dress shipped to her that day; some people have even sent picnic lunches to friends.
Sometimes the issue is not necessarily speed but security, Mr. Smith explains.
Two months ago, a Sky Courier employee flew on an airplane with Darth Vader's mask. He was transporting the irreplaceable ''Star Wars'' relic from director George Lucas's California ranch to a movie-theater trade show being held in Las Vegas.
Same-day operations are handled differently from overnight services. Overnight mail uses a hub-and-spoke system. Packages are flown to a central processing center - such as FedEx's Memphis hub - in the middle of the night. From there, the packages are flown to their final destinations and then trucked to the addressee the next day.
Same-day service, by contrast, focuses on individual packages rather than processing in batches. Couriers pick up an item and head straight for the airport. Then they put the package on the next available flight. While overnight service has large, fixed costs - namely airplane flights - no matter how many packages are shipped, same-day costs are based on the airline and the ground-transport expenses per package.
To cut the price for customers to about $50, they can bypass the carriers and contact the airlines directly, but time must still be spent traveling to an airport at both ends. And customers lose quick access to flight information on express-company computers.
While UPS foresees the market increasing at double-digit rates annually, Federal Express is less optimistic about such market potential.
But Smith says he expects continued growth as people place higher and higher value on the rapid movement of goods and services.