Our founder Alex and his friend Andy Stanford-Clark are sharing one of their fun experience here so grab some popcorn, settle down in a comfy armchair, and get ready for a journey that’s been in progress for quite a long time.
This project was conceived in October 2022, when we had some problems sending parcels to customers in the UK. Untracked parcels were sometimes disappearing, so we had to send out a replacement. Sometimes they didn’t arrive at all, or sometimes they showed up weeks later. We started using Tracked 48, which supposedly takes 48 hours, but we were finding these typically took a week to 10 days. So we mocked on Twitter the ridiculous “48” title of the service. Some speculated that “480” might set more realistic expectations. i.e. 20 days. Or a 48% chance of being delivered on time?
We’d heard about Apple AirTags and how people are putting them on luggage to track them when the airlines inevitably lose our cases and wondered whether it might enable us to track a package through the postal service. We were interested to find out how good the AirTag network coverage was, and where the tags would be picked up as they traveled through the postal system. We were very kindly loaned an AirTag, which we paired with our iPhone, and did some experiments close to home. We seemed to get a reasonable amount of tracking data on the Apple “FindMy” app, so we could see where the tag was as shown in the below image.
We wrote some code, based on the FindMyHistory project, which would constantly monitor the FindMy status reports, so we wouldn’t have to watch it all day every day. It would log the reported GPS positions of the tag, so we could draw a map (as in the below images) of the route the parcel was taking and also how long it was being processed in sorting depots.
We tried a few experiments, sending the AirTag in a jiffy bag as a “large letter” at different classes of postage – second class, first class, and Tracked 48. This was in November before the Christmas rush started and we were typically seeing 5-6 days of delivery from the South of England to Liverpool.
It was interesting to see how little time the packages spent actually moving – they spend most of their time in sorting depots, presumably zipping along on conveyor belts being sorted, or maybe just sitting around in large sacks waiting for the next leg of their journey.
As we can see in the above images, it was also interesting (and frustrating) to see the item arriving at the local sorting office, and then sitting there for a couple of days before it was put in a postie’s van and delivered to the house.
We kept thinking that, we could just pop down the road and pick it up!
Then just before Christmas, we decided to throw caution to the wind and send the tag into the Christmas chaos. The tag was posted from Liverpool in a Jiffy bag at lunchtime on 20th December, and almost immediately it set off on its journey. Wow – we thought they were pulling all the stops out to get post-delivered before Christmas! It arrived at the Royal Mail “NW Hub” near Warrington in the afternoon that day, and we assumed it would quickly be sorted and on its way – this was always a stopping-off point for all the post in and out of Liverpool.
But it was not to be. It didn’t move. It continued to not move.
Once we got into January, we complained on Twitter and @royalmailhelp responded and advised us that they were very busy and there were some big backlogs. Then they said we could claim compensation after it was 10 days overdue for delivery. They assured us that the letter would eventually be delivered – it wasn’t really “lost” and would never be dumped or destroyed during a clear-out. So that was quite a relief! We have to say we’ve always assumed that sacks of mail “go missing” for various reasons, but subsequent discussions with RM representatives have reassured us that they would never “dump” undelivered mail, and in fact, that would be illegal.
We passed the 480-hour point on 9th Jan. A week later it had taken 480 “working hours” (i.e. not Sundays, bank holidays, or strike days). All this time we were getting lots of location data from the tag as RM employees unknowingly detected the device with their phones (iPhones and Android are part of the network). If you’re curious about how AirTags and the global tracking network operate, there’s a great blog post here, that explains all.
We got to a whole month in transit (20th Jan), and the tag was still sitting in exactly the same location, in the middle of NW Hub, as it was put on 20th December when it arrived there. All this time, the “tracked” part of the Tracked 48 service was saying “We have your item”, which means it was scanned at the post office where we posted it, but had not yet been scanned on entry to NW Hub. We wondered how it was possible that the package was clearly inside the hub, but had not yet been scanned in.
We submitted the compensation claim and were waiting for that to work its way through the (undoubtedly very busy) complaints department of Royal Mail.
Then on 23rd January, it all started happening! The tracking history on the RM website was updated to say the item had been received at “North West Super Hub”. In fact, it said it was scanned twice – for good measure, presumably.
And then on 25th January, we got a message to say the item had been delivered. Yay! But… the AirTag was still clearly in NW Hub still. The delivery to a friend in Edinburgh was “botched” by the local postie – they put it through the wrong door, a few doors down from the address on the parcel. It was later put through the letterbox of the correct address (presumably by the person whose house it was incorrectly delivered to). We expect the postie did it on purpose (you can’t be THAT incompetent when there are numbers clearly marked on the front doors of a terraced row!), as the Jiffy bag was torn open at one end (as shown in the below image), and the contents were missing (we knew: it was still in NW Hub!). The package had taken 31 days from posting in Liverpool to delivery in Edinburgh. Sans AirTag, though.
We launched another compensation claim, as the first compensation claim for non-delivery was rejected, as the item HAD been delivered, technically.
Dealing with the RM compensation department is extremely difficult. They really don’t make it easy. You submit a claim through the website, wait for ages, and get no acknowledgment that they have received the claim or are doing anything about it. Then eventually, weeks later, you get an email saying they need additional information, with a passive-aggressive time limit of 10 days, otherwise, they will assume the matter has been resolved. OK, not passive-aggressive: that’s just aggressive, isn’t it? But after that, there’s no obligation on them to reply back to you within 10 days – they can just take their own sweet time. In the end, we reverse-engineered the email address of the person who emailed us and sent her a pointed message to respond to our claim. That worked – we got a response the next day (11th April), saying our claim had been progressed and they were raising a cheque, with an additional note informing us that sending emails to employees directly would not get results. Seemingly that’s not the case, as it absolutely did, Helen!
There is an escalation process for complaints to RM. It is described in a PDF document downloadable from the RM website. However, despite saying there IS an escalation process, it gives no information about how to invoke it. Not even an address to write to, LoL! Good ol’ RM, eh. Anyway, after DMing @RoyalMailHelp on Twitter, it turns out there IS a form for complaints escalation – We don’t believe it’s accessible from any link on the RM website, so if you ever need it, it’s here.
Meanwhile, the AirTag was still transmitting its location in NW Hub. We thought a lot about how to try to retrieve it. A friend working at RM had a friend who sometimes visited NW Hub. Maybe they could go onto the factory floor and retrieve it? We tried to contact NW Hub. Not very easy. They don’t have any contact information on their website. We suppose they want us to contact them through “official channels” – there’s nobody there who can help with “normal” postal inquiries, of course. But this wasn’t a normal situation!
As they’re at the Post Office, we decided to write to them – hoping the letter wouldn’t be lost in the post, LoL. We wrote to the “Site Manager” at the address of NW Hub. No reply. I’m sure he or she was far too busy managing the site to talk to the likes of me. In desperation, and a flash of inspiration, we sent a letter marked “URGENT” to the “Head of Security” at NW Hub. That worked!
Tune in for the next thrilling part of the AirTag Saga!