Airmule: Odd Name For A Real Service That Swears It’s Not A Shipping Company

Hear the word “mule” in any context other than the barnyard and you’ll likely think of people shoving illegal drugs or other contraband in bodily cavities in order to smuggle it past the authorities. So when we heard about a new “peer-to-peer” courier service called AirMule, we had to take a closer look.

Promising “affordable express shipping worldwide with trusted travelers,” Airmule urges potential customers to “ship with people, not boxes.” Translation: you give a stranger your package and they get on a flight with it, and then either deliver it in person or ship it using local mailing services to its final destination.

How It Works

Using the Airmule app, people who want to ship something find others who have listed upcoming trips they’re taking, and connect in the app to discuss package details. There’s a minimum rate of $4 per pound, but folks listing their flights will often price things at an average of around $8 or $10 per pound, Airmule CEO and co-founder Sean Yang tells Consumerist.

The two parties then meet to hand off the item, an encounter that again, is arranged through the app so there’s a record of the exchange. Senders can then track their packages as the carrier travels, and receive real-time notifications until the item arrives at its destination.

How Is It Legal?

The process sounds simple enough, but what happens at the airport when the Airmule user is asked if someone gave them anything to take on the plane with them?

The Transportation Security Administration does have an Indirect Air Carrier program, which requires that “any person or entity within the United States” that doesn’t operate as an air carrier but who wants to “engage indirectly in air transportation of property and uses for all or any part of such transportation the services of an air carrier” must adopt and carry out a security program okayed by TSA, which is renewed every year.

However, Airmule’s Yang claims the company doesn’t need that certification, because (and this might sound familiar) it’s not a courier service; it’s a platform to connect people who have things that need to be carried, and travelers willing to carry those items.

“Airmule is actually not a shipping company, in the same way that Airbnb doesn’t provide accommodation,” Yang tells Consumerist, so the company hasn’t submitted any applications to TSA. In fact, he says they tried to contact TSA, but couldn’t get any direct answers from the government agency.

Yang adds that they checked with airline companies as well, who all said they were fine with it as long as the package doesn’t contain any restricted items — flammable goods or substances, drugs, weapons, whathaveyou.

“[When] passengers purchase the ticket, they have the right to sit on the airplane, and they own the luggage they bring in,” Yang explains. “They have the right to bring whatever they want, as long as the item is legal.”

When contacted by Consumerist and asked if the agency was aware of Airmule or whether it had concerns with the platform, TSA could not provide a comment.

What If Something Goes Wrong?

Okay, you might be saying, I’ve seen movies — what if the person you hand your package to opens it — as they’re allowed to, under Airmule terms, and instead of inspecting it, they stuff a baggie full of cocaine in that teddy bear? Or what if the traveler doesn’t crack open the stuffed animal’s head and misses the drugs stashed inside?”

It’s all about prevention, Yang tells Consumerist, and in documenting every step of the process through the Airmule app. Travelers have the right to inspect any package they agree to carry, to ensure it doesn’t contain illicit goods.

And if someone is stopped by authorities with something they shouldn’t have, there’s a clear record of who put what, where, because the process is tracked through the Airmule app — as well as the sender’s banking and credit card information and the location they made the handoff — effectively providing a paper trail that documents every step of the package’s journey.

On the traveler’s side, anyone can be a courier. But once you’ve signed up Airmule sends an application to become a “verified” courier, which means uploading your driver’s license and passport to the Airmule platform, which the company keeps encrypted. In the future, Yang says, the company might upgrade some verified couriers to a “professional” level, that would require background checks.

If a traveler is stopped by authorities because of something illegal they’re carrying that they didn’t see when they inspected the package, Yang says Airmule would stand by them and provide authorities with any documentation they might need to have the situation cleared up.

Real Drug Mules Wouldn’t Use Airmule Anyway

Besides, Airmule talked to some professionals — people who are in jail for actually being drug mules or other drug-trafficking crimes. And they all said they’d never use a system like Airmule, Yang says, because it’d be too easy to get caught.

“Most of these people are cash only, they don’t want to leave any trail,” he explains. “And they only work with people they know — they’re not just going to give their stuff to some stranger just because there’s an app.”

Although he admits that it’s not impossible for some bad actor to figure out a way to send something illegal through Airmule, he says the platform makes it really easy for the company to find them out if it does happen.

So, About That Name…

Of course, there’s that other elephant, or rather, mule in the room — the company’s name. Why name your business something that conjures up illicit activity? Basically, because the company isn’t afraid of answering questions about whether or not its business is legal, Yang says.

The company wasn’t originally named Airmule, but everyone had the same questions we did, he says, as well as connecting the service to drug mules. He got a bit emotional over the fact that people don’t consider the good in people as well as the bad, so he just decided, fudge that, why not call it Airmule and meet the questions head on?

“Airmule is not really a mule business,” Yang explains. “I just want people to know, if you’re going to challenge me, we’re ready for the challenge, we’re not going to back down just to give a bunch of explanations.”

He adds that it’s a business model that works, with over a thousand shipped items during Airmule’s initial beta testing. Out of all of those, only one package had an issue, when a courier mailed a $600 wallet to the wrong customer on his list. After Airmule contacted the unintended recipient, who has used Airmule herself, she sent it back to be redirected at her own expense.

“This is what we do, and we have faith in delivery, and apparently, it works,” Yang says.

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