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Cheap Beijing Flights With a Dangerous Catch (seat31b.com)
604 points by msh on Aug 6, 2017 | hide | past | web | favorite | 248 comments

Companies like this have been around for years, and whenever I read about them I'm surprised that people would risk going to prison (or worse) just to get a discounted air fare. I wouldn't even carry a package for a friend unless I could see exactly what was inside, let alone carry a suitcase full of unknown stuff for a total stranger.

Also, an inevitable question when going through security checkpoints in some countries is "did you pack your own luggage". I assume that if you answer "no", you'd be subjected to a very thorough search for bombs or contraband.

Calling a company "Airmule" seems to be a particularly bad choice, since the term "mule" is commonly used to denote a person who carries smuggled drugs (sometimes concealed inside their body).

>Calling a company "Airmule" seems to be a particularly bad choice, since the term "mule" is commonly used to denote a person who carries smuggled drugs (sometimes concealed inside their body).

No kidding. One has to wonder how the founders can't be aware of that. Perhaps it was intended as a tongue-in-cheek name?

If I'd have wanted to satirise the worst elements of the "gig economy" and SV founders' wilful exploitation of grey areas in laws, I'd probably have bought the domain name Airmule and set up a Smuggling As A Service marketplace. Of course, to make it a bit more obviously a Very Bad Idea and not just a neat little hack I'd focus my "areas of operation" on a country which executes drug smugglers and gives no preferential treatment whatsoever to naive Western backpackers whose parents and embassies can get them good lawyers.

I'm still hoping they're not actually in operation and this is just a PR stunt to promote their actual business of selling Chinese Visa arrangement services (also on the website), but I'm not holding out too much hope.

Hah this would make for a great satire site with that domain name. Or maybe not. Clearly it wouldn't have gone far enough since this seems real.

Perhaps it was. But security and customs officers aren't known for their great sense of humor, so it's probably best to stick with names that don't suggest drug trafficking.

Side note: Just a few days ago I flew domestically within Australia just a week after some anti-terror arrests and increased security screening (which has since been lifted). As my bag went through it got flagged and the security officer flagged the aerosol can. I was already pretty nervous already, so I apologise profusely for the mistake.

Turns out the security officer was just a Regular Person, claimed deodorant cans are his "bread and bitter" and had a little chuckle as he found it in my toiletries bag.

What airport security had to say about a regular person impersonating security agents?

> What airport security had to say about a regular person impersonating security agents?

I initially read madeofpalk's comment (https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=14940680) as it seems that you might have, so that it seemed to say that the supposed security agent was not actually a security agent; but a second reading suggests that the meaning is instead that, in addition to being a security agent, the person in question was a Regular Person, and had a sense of humour.

Repeated readings still do not reveal whether an Australian security agent referring to something as his "bread and bitter" is a typo or intentional. :-)

A bread & bitter is a typical Australian breakfast of stale bread and (when available) an anise liquor.

It's derived from the continental "existentialist breakfast" of a black coffee, cigarette, and Aspirin–but had to be adapted due to the bad availability of commercial products in the past, as well as the higher activity levels the Australian bush requires and the resulting danger of a breakfast completely devoid of calories.

I had to look it up to see if you were serious or not. There does happen to be a brewpub by that name in Nottingham though.


I can't tell if this is real or not. I guess the joke is on me for not knowing if you're satirizing with bitter and liquor or not.

As @jonah found out, it's just a joke–only the "existentialist breakfast" is a real thing that probably started as a joke, and that I've seen on one or two menus of cafes willing to skirt the rules on selling pharmaceuticals.

But the joke is most definitely not "on you". As in: It wasn't meant to expose anybody's shocking lack of knowledge of arcane Australian trivia.

The idiom is definitely "bread and butter", perhaps madeofpalk was making a joke about his accent?

U and I are adjacent on QWERTY. Easy typo. Even worse pick-up line. “Hey baby, I prefer QWERTY because it puts U and I together.”

I agree completely. In fact, I'd wager every time customs hears the name it's bound to trigger further scrutiny, even if subconsciously.

I remember an article at WSJ years ago on how many startup founders choose such tongue in cheek / humorous names and how that is almost always a bad choice. But calling this airmule is insane.

On the risks, I wonder if making the person carrying an extra bag the temporary owner of it (and showing him the packing of the luggage) so he can always say no would help making it safer for the user. But I personally would never do this even in this setup.

Perhaps to allow self selection to do its thing and interact only with those stupid enough.

If they wanted a tongue in cheek name, they should have called it RectalExpress.

Maybe change the company name to "Brokedown Palace"?

Customs officials are well known for their senses of humor.

Airmule is people?

I wouldn't even carry luggage for my wife or my mother, even if traveling with them. My mother once said "We haven't had problems with my morphine when we visited China (She's old and suffers from hip arthrosis). Actually I had put half in your dad's luggage, in case they lost mine." My dad wasn't happy, especially at how casual she sounded. She didn't even carry the doctor's ordinance. Most people don't understand the risks of being abroad.

I had to take narcotics into Dubai for a health issue I was facing at the time. You can bet I had the clearly marked prescription bottle with the minimum amount I needed for my trip along with a note from my doctor explaining the medication. The medication was always accompanied by those, too.

As screwed up as drug laws are in the US, they are child's play compared to what some countries have. And once they think that you might be trafficking, you are in for a bad day.

"Also, an inevitable question when going through security checkpoints in some countries is "did you pack your own luggage". I assume that if you answer "no", you'd be subjected to a very thorough search for bombs or contraband."

Yeah, but that's actually probably not the biggest problem here. A thorough search for bombs is just that - a thorough search. Some people are selected randomly for this kind of search. Unless you're actually carrying a bomb (and that is one thing this company does say it protects against), then you shouldn't have to worry about this.

(Although all the other things said against them seem exactly right to me, so I'm not in any way endorsing them.)

I always suspected if you answer 'no' to that question then they'll just refuse to check the luggage.

I always suspected there's a lot more than just that. Basically, an intensified inspection and whatever follows from the findings.

If they allow you to continue flying that is.

Of course they inspect first, for as long as it takes, and whether your flight goes without you is secondary.

This was my first thought. If you don't want people to think they're doing something shady, don't call them mules..

Doesn't have to be shady. "Hey guy, please bring these South East Asian fruit to Australia for my family". Lack of knowledge of local laws could cause you some headaches.

No shit. A friend of mine brought an apple from Sydney to Perth. 500 dollar fine. Yes, from within Australia to another place in Australia.

> An Apple from Sydney to Perth

Wait, what? There's no screening or security on domestic arrivals in Australia. There's no customs. There's no signage warning about this. This is the first I've ever heard of this and I have trouble believing this.

There is quarantine, though:


Driving or flying to or from WA, you will see inspectors and dogs.

Huh that's so interesting. I've done plenty of flying along Eastern Australia so I never had a reason to presume there was anything more over in WA.


I live in Launceston Tasmania, there's a fruit bin on the way in to the airport from the tarmac. Nearly every time I've been to the airport here there is a Beagle getting about on the luggage carousel.

Now that I think about it, that dog might not be there entirely for fruit. There was a bit of a spate of people bringing ice (meth-amphetamine) in through checked baggage a couple years ago. Who does that?

Unfortunately the beagles are mostly gone from Hobart airport. There's just the one now, I'm told, and s/he wasn't on duty last I flew down. Family that fly through there regularly all say they havnt seen it on duty much either.

This made my paranoid checking of whether my chosen brand of fruit-oil containing shower gel would be permitted kind of redundant.

For somewhere there's not supposed to be fruit fly, we sure saw a lot of fruit flies.

Beagles usually are used for smelling foods (vegetables and meats), not drugs.

Every eastern state airport I've ever seen has fruit bins at the gate or on the airbridge, and there is frequently an on-board announcement near TOD that some states prohibit bringing in fruit.

there is frequently an on-board announcement near TOD that some states prohibit bringing in fruit

Yup, was about to mention this. I did Sydney to Perth a couple of weeks ago & Qantas made that announcement close to landing. In particular, they mention not to bring honey into Western Australia, and to talk to a flight attendant if you were carrying honey.

I do remember seeing signage (somewhere) in Perth on arrival, but I don't remember seeing any disposal bins.

They 100% don't have disposal bins at Sydney T3, nor do I remember them at Melbourne or Brisbane. I've spent a lot of time in that airport, sometimes without even flying and I've never seen anything other than just regular bins and the "oops I forgot this bottle of water" before security.

Water and liquids are permitted through security on domestic flights from domestic airport terminals. No reason to dump your bottle of water.


There's similar if you go north of Brisbane. Turns out, having a ridiculously sparse population is also a good defence against the spread of plant diseases.

There's actually signs somewhere north of BNE telling truckies that they can't take bananas past that point, for example.

Does California still have the agricultural prohibitions? I can remember the fruit fly traffic inspections in the '70s.

I've also been sniffed by a Dept. of Agriculture beagle coming back from Puerto Rico.

I-10 from AZ still has an inspection station that seemed to wave through most passenger vehicles.

Same in South Australia, mostly to prevent the spread of Fruit Fly (confined to eastern part of Australia). WA and SA rely economically on fruit plantations, so the noxious fruit fly could cause grave damage to local economies.

Don't travel with fruit in Australia, its the height of selfishness.

Can't speak for Perth, but flights into Tasmania absolutely go through another round of biosecurity screening.

What in the world? Why is this?

Western Australia is separated from farms in the rest of the country by ~1000 km of desert, meaning there are various pests in the rest of the country that they don't want to see introduced, and thus enforce strict quarantine measures: https://www.agric.wa.gov.au/importing-animals/quarantine-wa-...

FWIW, California also has agricultural quarantine measures, they're just much more half-assed.

Hawaii does not play around with its own agricultural (et al) quarantines. Every time you fly into the state, you must declare items on a special state checklist, for exactly the same reasons.

Hawaii also (?) checks for agricultural products when you leave the islands:


Australia is an island so it has a fairly unique biodiversity. For international flights bringing in fruits is a concern since it can introduce pests that don't otherwise exist in Australia.

Australia is also a very large island, and the biodiversity of the east coast is very different to that of the west coast, so the same concerns apply. If you drive along the highways between states you'll see signs telling you to dispose of your fruit.


We take protecting our agriculture very seriously. You don't want an outbreak of something in one state to spread to another.

It kinda makes sense. We're so isolated geographically, when something happens in other parts of the world, we have a very good chance of protecting ourselves.

I believe Australia actually has the oldest vineyards in the world. Something took out the vineyards everywhere else in the world.

Diseases in one part of the country could spread to another. Australia and NZ have strict biosecurity because their isolation means they missed out on a lot of diseases that affect produce and animals in other parts of the world.

Because there are crop diseases endemic in one part of the country that aren't present in another. Try searching for "Nevada California fruit" if that's closer to home.

Fruit flies.

Of course, this would be even worse if the fruits in questions are https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Durian

This looks like this "amazing startup idea" is directly taken from a Narcos (netflix) marathon with lots of beers and a few friends.

Next up on Australian border patrol

You'd be better off trying to smuggle heroin than getting caught taking bananas to Queensland.

I started a similar company where the shipments were all carried inside balloons in the "courier's" gastrointestinal tracts, and for some reason that didn't work out either.

No ones going to want stolen cheeseburgers that have been smuggled in someone else's gastro intestinal tract.

That kind of venture was doomed from the start.

Hah. The name being a bad choice no matter how tongue in cheek it is, is the first thing that came up for me too. I hastily wrote a comment before seeing your top comment brings this up too.

There is no way your company name should be this tongue in cheek about something that can be as serious as international drug smuggling.

At worst they should've got the domain name and made it a marketing landing page for their actual company. Not use Airmule as their actual company name.

I agree completely - I also wonder how long a visible and poorly named company can get away with this since the airlines typically offer "counter-to-counter" freight service that uses their position as a common carrier to shield them from liability.

AirMule is performing an arbitrage since the price difference is making them a profit but the airlines can't be happy about it whether or not the practice has been quietly going along for decades.

The target market might be people who otherwise would never be able to afford the fare, and therefore consider the discount worth the risk. If you don't have the personal wealth to travel, I can imagine that this kind of opportunity would be very attractive.

That's kind of the heart of what's wrong with it. People generally agree, for example, that it was a good thing when we banned the practice of selling ones' self into indentured servitude. It is almost certainly true that indentured servitude was "worth the cost/risk" for some of the people who signed up, but we make it illegal anyway because it sets up a situation where people are likely to be exploited. Same goes for, for example, selling kidneys.

This is the first I heard of such a thing. I honestly can't believe anyone would agree to such a thing.

It used to be very common, but improved routes from FedEx/DHL etc and increased security have ended the business.


http://courierlist.com/ -- which has an announcement from 2005 saying the discounts aren't worth it any more!

When I flew to Amsterdam in 95, guy next to me had a career as a courier for Ford and GM (I flew from Detroit). He mostly brought over specialized tooling parts for engineering depts in US and Europe. Always a carry on he says to prevent theft. He was in his 60's back then but said he's been doing this for a number of years and got to travel the world. I guess these companies still do it.

It happens in the space industry too. I've never seen a dedicated career courier, but rather someone who worked on the project handles it. It's useful when the project is late and the person csn head out for the flight immediately without any shipping company time overhead.

Back in the 90s I knew people who would fly back to Japan carrying parcels, in return for reduced tickets (not $99 though, but it might have been £300 instead of £400). I always thought it was kind of sketchy, but as I understand it what was carried were documents, and no one I know ever got into trouble.

Why not just open the package and inspect it yourself? Then reseal it? It seems like you would get in way less trouble for opening a package given to (and you're not even a common carrier so does the non-opening law apply?) you than getting caught trafficking drugs.

Seriously ... lol. What a BAD name. They should just call it the Escobar Courier Service

If I were to sign up for this I would make it clear that it is not my luggage. In fact it is the first thing I would say to the airport staff: that I'm carrying this package on behalf of this company and everything is supposed to be arranged an in order. If anything is off and airport security would decide to confiscate / disallow the package, that is not my problem. I'd shrug and say "do what you've got to do". It's the Airmule's responsibility to make sure that whatever papers need to be filed are filed.

>It's the Airmule's responsibility to make sure that whatever papers need to be filed are filed.

As the article says, it doesn't work like that in countries like China (and I suppose it doesn't work like that in many other countries). You're 100% responsible for the package you're carrying unless this happens:

> One of those exceptions is to be the authorized representative of a “common carrier.” These are companies like FedEx, UPS, or DHL, or the airlines themselves

So, as the article says, if someone decides to fill your bag with heroin up to the top Airmule will have nothing to do with it, the death-sentence will be all yours.

> it doesn't work like that in countries like China

It doesn't work also in countries like USA. (I think we agree.)

And it doesn't work in other countries where the security is not so tough like Argentina. [Hi from Argentina!]

It's not exactly the same case, but ... from: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/03/10/magazine/the-professor-the...

> [...] but when he arrived at the airline counter, he was greeted by several policemen. Asked to identify his luggage — “That’s my bag,” he said, “the other one’s not my bag, but I checked it in” [...]

>> These are companies like FedEx, UPS, or DHL, or the airlines themselves

The question that needs to be asked is "Is Airmule one of these companies, and are Airmule couriers authorized representatives of Airmule?".

The distinction is not that Airmule is a company that provides services in the manner of a common carrier. It's whether they're recognized as such by the government. This is probably done by filing papers in the US and in China. Then they could answer "We are a common carrier, license number XYZ. Users sign form ABC to become an official Airmail representative."

A slightly less important but still relevant question is whether operating a courier service using an airline which itself offers the same service is a violation of the airline's TOS.

The article gives an example of why that wouldn't work either: Certain items (e.g. alcohol) would not be legal for a common carrier to import, but you can take small amounts with you for your own consumption.

In fact, it doesn't work like that in any country. For a good reason, when you come to think of it. What you bring in to the country is yours, you can't escape responsibility except by becoming a freight company which is then subject to entirely different responsibilities (and lack of rights).

If you're planning to trust that strategy with your life, first check with a lawyer to make sure it will actually work. Remember, making an argument about how you think the law should work, and a prediction about how it will work, are two completely different activities that it's very easy to get confused.

I think that it can't work like that. Checked bags are tied to your ticket, so you're responsible for them.

There are countries that do not care what you think.

In the same fashion they will shrug, say, we don't care, and throw you in jail or take your life away.

Yeah I don't think it's going to down like that. It's still your baggage in a way. You announcing it's not yours before it possibly having illegal things in them isn't likely to magically make security be cool with you and let you off the hook. Chances are pretty good for the opposite.

You can make whatever you want “clear.” But if it’s on your ticket, it’s your bag.

if you think about it for 1 sec you will realize why it does not work like that.


"to a willing person, injury is not done...is a common law doctrine which states that if someone willingly places themselves in a position where harm might result, knowing that some degree of harm might result, they are not able to bring a claim against the other party in tort or delict."

For those who didn't study Latin or law :p

Ah. Maybe the best to protect the consumer would be to rename it AirGoat or AirDarwinAward. More seriously, the people using those services will probably be from a too poor background to come across this blog, and don't have the education to understand what's happening to them. Social class discrepancies at its finest.

The lower classes don’t typically just jump on airplanes to China. It also isn’t like this company is putting flyers on the local community center bulletin board recruiting AirMules.

You still have to get visas, accommodation and such. This business is targeting the young and stupid not the poor and uneducated.

It's became communist (or facist, or anti-capitalist or unpatriotic or whatever the buzz word insult of the week is) in some circles to have an ounce of humanity and empathy and to dare to suggest that not all humans are completely equal in the opportunities they have and access to all the necessary information so they might make poor decisions and it's not entirely their fault.

I didn't study law or Latin but the amount of time I see this BS online and offline (usually translated though) is astonishing.

It's a very good principle for dangerous professions, bets, stun artists, boxers, etc. but not for average people as these crazy "free market" people try to apply it.

Jail time in China is not a reasonable risk to be expected from being a client of a legally operating company selling cheap tickets where your luggage space is "rented out".

Chinese people are always taking 1001 gifts back and forth. They will never run out of luggage space.


"Please note that, as stated above, the site, application and services are intended to be used to facilitate travelers and senders connecting and arranging item transportation directly with each other. Airmule cannot and does not control the content contained in any package and the condition, legality or suitability of any items and luggage. Airmule strongly advises each traveler to inspect each item carefully. If a traveler does suspects an item is illicit, do not transport and contact airmule. Airmule is not responsible for and disclaims any and all liability related to any and all available transportation. Accordingly, any inquiries will be made or accepted at the member’s own risk."

I don't know how long that has been there, but it is clear. They are brokers, but don't accept any liability.

"Airmule strongly advises each traveler to inspect each item carefully."

But in their FAQs, they have this:

"Can I inspect the shipments?"

"All travelers have the right to inspect their shipment(s) prior to boarding. However, please note that Airmule manually inspects and verifies each item for safety before traveler handoff."


This is extremely disingenuous of them to have their FAQ essentially contradict their TOS. Honestly sounds like they are deliberately trying to deceive people.

An interesting question is "What did the traveller agree to?" The ToS legalese which says "We have no responsibility" or the FAQ which says they check & validate that the luggage is safe to take.

It sucks that companies can say one thing in the ToS and that overrides the more prominant FAQ.

Even if the travelers inspect the shipments, are they supposed to open every single container/bag inside to ensure that everything's legal? How would common folk know how to tell between heroin and baby powder? What about hidden compartments, sealed containers?

Gee, it looks like a USB stick. I sure hope there isn't anything illegal on it.

It's been updated:


(Caps in original.)

"does suspects". These guys are extremely diligent.

I cringe when I read such Trumpian tweets from a founder. The journalist reached out a few times and the response was unclear. So he writes his piece with a pretty clear warning to future customers. Get your PR and compliance straight if you want to avoid such pieces, don't complain afterwards while calling names.

Caveat emptor. Just those responses are a red flag, if the subject is legal risk surrounding smuggling to PRC. They don't want you to know.

> Caveat emptor

The hell with that, the company should be shut down. Some poor soul will think it's a sweet deal. They're putting people at risk of the death penalty without telling them and implying everyone is A-OK.


AirMule are informing the second party (the "mule") that there is no risk. Exactly how is intentionally lying to your customers to the point that you can get them killed ethical? And how exactly is it the fault of the person you've intentionally lied to that they believed your lie?

The ethical thing to say, in big, bold writing, is "we check as thoroughly as possible, but we can't be absolutely certain there's nothing illegal in the bag, and you're responsible to the authorities - to the extent of a potential death sentence - if that happens". In fact, this is hidden away all the way at the bottom of the terms and conditions! Of course, if they did that then they wouldn't have any customers.

You can be ethical in the presence of other unethical actors - that the Government may or may not be unethical does not change whether your activities are ethical.

> AirMule are informing the second party (the "mule") that there is no risk. Exactly how is intentionally lying to your customers to the point that you can get them killed ethical?


> In fact, this is hidden away all the way at the bottom of the terms and conditions!

Or not bottom but slightly above the bottom, since people may skim through and read first and last part only as a matter of verification.

> Exactly how is intentionally lying to your customers to the point that you can get them killed ethical?

I suppose its a survival of the fittest, to get rid of those humans ignorant or poor enough to deal with this.

Would it pass the Darwin Awards though?

And don't make the mistake that this business practice goes right for an X amount of times. A scammer on eBay can have hundreds of positive feedback before his exit strategy.

As for the "These guys totally have you covered." in the original article, I wouldn't want to do business with someone who's manner of first impression is to advertises themselves as a hardcore gamer, a dancer (with that stale face), and a beer drinker. Doesn't give me confidence at all!

I disagree with pretty much your entire message but I'm surprised so I ask: how is it in any way the fault of the governments agents ?!? They don't even have anything to do with that Airmul scam.

They are the ones perpetrating the actual violence by their own hands. I would have thought that obvious.

>The journalist

So journalists conduct their interviews in 140-character messages nowadays? I can't help but agree with the co-founder that hit-pieces should be based on actual interviews, not a Twitter conversation, ff we're going to consider this as journalism of course. If it's just amateurish blogging then I guess that would pass.

"Do the carrier has legal protection from the content of airmule bag", thus making him not responsible if it's filled with heroin, is a yes/no question.

Anything longer than that, or running in circle refusing a clear answer, should be interpreted as "no" by the users, which is what the article says.

how hard is it for the founder to answer a yes or no question over twitter? Dodging it by saying they are like other OBC is basically an admission that they aren't legally protecting their carriers. If they had made known that they don't claim legal liability _at all_, then i would be fine with their service.

The founder just doesn't understand the risk, hence this behavior.

He's the average victim who would fall for a $99 fare. He certainly can't believe the risk would be that high, hence he's upset with "a hit piece"; He probably just read a bit on the internet about what it means to be OBC. He may not even have a lawyer and it could be a side project. They describe themselves as average bros, probably not because they've thought it through for marketing reasons, but just because that's their identity. Simple guys organizing something cool, patching a genius opportunity that no-one has taken before, and targeted ad hominem by a blogger. He just can't understand it any other way.

Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by ignorance, indeed.

It's true, but this is not the tone you would write a journalistically sound article with. Let's just call it what it is. It's blogging, it's great and sometimes even more effective of what we journalist can achieve, but it indeed has different standards. My personal opinion is that the Twitter interaction was enough as a comment. If that's the case, tho, I wouldn't report anything more than strictly necessary, i.e. Co-Founder answered on twitter like this, failing to clarify my question. No further comments, no innuendos to unsaid liabilities.

Even if he answered that question directly, I still think it wouldn't be enough as material to base a story on. How hard wouldn't it have been for "the journalist" to reach out for the co-founder for an interview?

The real story is that the founder refused to give a straight answer to a simple, explicit "yes or no" question when directly and repeatedly asked. Where there's smoke there's fire! His non-answer shows he knows there's a problem, and he's actively trying to deflect attention away from it.

Have you stopped beating your significant other? I just need a simple, explicit "yes or no".

Not every question that can conceivably return a bool answer should be answered that way in PR.

> Have you stopped beating your significant other?

that's an unfair comparison, because this is a loaded question (implying you were beating your SO). The question being asked in the blogpost is asking for clarification, with no assumption behind it.

There is an assumption behind the blogpost's question, IMO: that only by being setup exactly as Fedex and UPS can the couriers be adequately protected.

Maybe that is the actually the case (I'm not an expert in the field), but the underlying assumption of that being a hard requirement is present. Now, if Airmule thinks that they don't need to do exactly that but have another means by which the couriers could be protected, they can't reasonably answer "yes" (because they aren't organized that way) nor "no" (because that's a misleading answer from their point of view).

Easy response he could have made, but didn't:

"Not a common carrier - this page on our website describes exactly what protections are provided: <link>"

"I have never beaten my significant other" is an explicit answer that fulfills the question and doesn't hide behind the facts, unlike the founder in question.

That's a trivial thing, you would simply categorically deny the implicit accusation. But his answer instead did not come even close, it was "I have stopped about the same as other people".

Instead of beating them, I send them on an airline trip to Beijing with a suitcase full of contraband, and the Chinese government beats them for me.

So if I wanted to write a HN comment based on a question I had for the founder that I posted on Twitter, would I be doing a potential hit piece? Should I have scheduled a interview? This is the internet: we're all in some ways journalists in your terms.

He wasn't writing an interview so it doesn't matter how hard it'd have been.

How hard is it for the author to say "I'm writing a piece on you and would like some clarification on some points"?

He never told them he was writing a piece and gave them a chance to read it or comment, AFAICT.

I see, schrödinger companies. The answer to a question (that isn't any company secret but a simple question) is totally different depending on you being a client vs. being a journalist.

I don't so much see the answer as being totally different as I see the amount of effort going into the answer varying wildly.

Should Consumer Review disclose the fact that they will review the car when they buy a car from a dealership?

The author didn't review the service, he basically assumed many things about the inner workings and didn't give the company a chance to clarify.

Consumer Review doesn't have to disclose the fact that they will review a car when they buy it from a dealership, but they probably should ask GM to comment when they say "it seems to us, without having driven one or heard from anyone who has driven one, that GM are making their cars so they explode on impact".

> Consumer Review doesn't have to disclose the fact that they will review a car when they buy it from a dealership, but they probably should ask GM to comment when they say "it seems to us, without having driven one or heard from anyone who has driven one, that GM are making their cars so they explode on impact".

Do they have to disclose that they are Consumer Review when they talk to GM?

Or the CEO of Airmule could have take a few seconds to look at the Twitter profile of the user asking questions before responding publicly.

The Twtitter profile for user @TPrphet states that he is a blogger for a site called Seat31B.

Also the blogger may not have had any intention of writing a blog post prior to the exchange.

As a startup founder myself, I don't take writing a negative post about another startup lightly.

That being said, I always reserve the right to blog about anything I think is interesting or important to my readers, and this subject meets the bar given the seriousness of the potential consequences here. "Move fast and break things" is something you can do in a social app but lives are potentially at stake here.

It's also fair for me to move quickly. Airmule is out in public advertising $99 flights to Beijing right now. Why should I have to wait until Rory is back in the office on Monday to write about it?

It's fairly normal to write blog posts without interviewing anyone. If the facts are clear, why spend the time? There isn't a law that says that I have to schedule an interview with an airline before I blog about their economy class cabin, and there isn't a law that says I have to schedule an interview with a startup founder around his backyard tile laying project and Costco shopping trip.

Note that my readers are largely young backpackers - think the /r/shoestring and /r/solotravel crowd. I would have written an entirely different blog post--and one that the founder would have been completely happy with--if the answers had been different. It's unfortunate that they weren't.

For me, it's about how certain you are about what's going on. If you've flown with an airline and have seen their economy class cabin, then you're okay to write about it without talking to anyone. You presumably didn't fly with this startup, though (unless I missed it in the post), so I'm wondering what their side of the story is.

It's probably "err, yes, you might get the death penalty", but I don't know that, because nobody from the company was reached for comment.

I hate to break it to you, but the vast majority of press (and certainly blog) articles are written without actually talking to anyone; they're based on public information and--at most--email requests.

If the founders were doing the right thing here, they probably wouldn't have felt the need to dodge all my questions. I'd have gotten clear answers with evidence to back them up. Normal companies do this.

Also, if Airmule wanted an interview, they could have replied asking for a phone call and giving me their phone number.

For folks who claim I didn't clearly represent myself: My Twitter handle identifies me as a Seat 31B blogger, I emailed them from my seat31b.com address, and I publicly stated on Twitter that I was planning to blog about this. I don't know how it could possibly be any more clear. Yes, like many people in the startup community I do more than one thing (I am also involved with multiple startups) but given that these very different lines of business (a dating app and an information security consulting firm) I don't think there could be any reasonable confusion.

None of this actually happened, so I think it's pretty clear what's going on here.

I wasn't even remotely defending Airmule in my comment, just the opposite. Maybe you should reread my comment and it's context as a response to the OP?

Relax, I'm not going after you - this is part of a broader conversation. :)

The whole article is based on a single, short and simple question. I don't think the blogger is looking to interview him; or really want/need to.

If you can't answer a yes no question without wishy-washy flim-flam pr doublespeak then you don't get to complain that an article doesn't have facts.

and while i'm ranting. what is with founders presenting them selves as "bro's at the bar"? If the founders had bios that looked like they were from upper management at ibm i might be more likely to use their service.

Quite. A 30-year logistics industry veteran branching out is one thing, this is something totally else. And at heart is the same as all "disruptive" or "sharing economy" businesses - sidestepping regulations and pocketing the cost of compliance.

What is frustrating in this one as well is that sidestepping the regulations is putting the 'gig contractor/employee/worker' in tremendous risk without giving formal training. I love the fact that their site lists them as a 9-5 place without a timezone. Of all the things that need 24hr support international travel from NA to China is one of them.

>What is frustrating in this one as well is that sidestepping the regulations is putting the 'gig contractor/employee/worker' in tremendous risk without giving formal training.

This sounds like the basis for the entire "sharing economy".

Yes, but I'm not sure anywhere has the death penalty for unlicensed taxi driving.

Maybe they aren't trying to people like you, who are likely smart enough to know this service is highly suspect. Maybe they are trying to appeal to the average "bro".

that's a possibility, maybe they are trying to present a persona that will resonate with a particular type of person that will try to 'beat the system' without considering risks.

(although I have seen different places with 'about us' pages that look like a frat.)

so you're saying they are trying to get suckers to take all the risk (unknowningly), and profit off that themselves!

They don't just need "mules", they need people with packages to send, they're whose paying for this after all. So whatever company persona would need to appeal to them too - if this were deliberate.

You can simply have a different front that looks like your average courier service. Call that front Airline Express, where you would try to look professional and trustworthy.

Kind of similar to how Nestle has brands that appeal to different groups instead of calling everything Nestle.

Probably their target user is a poor undergrad/grad student taking a trip home, so they hope a bro at the bar is someone they can connect with. A suit from IBM --not so much.

It is rejecting the premise of the question. Airmule isn't a common carrier, so engaging with a line of questioning that presumes they are a common carrier is a lose/lose situation - the sort of questioning sometimes caricatured as "when did you stop beating your wife".

Rightfully so, too. The blogger clearly chose his very unfriendly angle. Of the few actual quotes from the company are statements such as on-board couriers being an established industry, both FedEx and UPS being in that industry and all shipments complying with customs. If the blogger was genuinely interested in informing his readers, diving into those statements would be interesting, but he seems to reject them out of hand, preferring instead to pursue a "gotcha" question about common carrier status.

No matter how supposedly hostile the question was, if there really is any genuine law protection of "couriers" - then company rep could just point out the relevant FAQ item.

They are using as "couriers" mostly completely uninformed laypersons, which can't be expected to know what ocs is, ffs!

> sometimes caricatured as "when did you stop beating your wife".

You misunderstood that one.

You cannot answer yes to that question since it implies you were beating your wife in the past.

You cannot answer no to the question since it implies you are still beating your wife nowadays.

Hence the question requires an in depth answer. Another poster above wrote as example reply: "I have never beaten my significant other". That's a clear answer, and if you said that under oath and its found out you lied, you got one more issue on your plate. And that's the goal of the question: it forces the other party to increase accountability.

Because the question provokes (or 'requires') an in depth answer like the example provided it is a good question in interrogation techniques, but also a good question to ask from the hands or mouth of a journalist (or interviewer). Which a blogger arguably is.

If anything, if you read through the article, the blogger is actually quite friendly and sympathetic about the startup. It just turned sour after the vague, dodging responses. When you get such vague, dodging responses you are at the very least dealing with amateurs, and at worst with people who know very well what they're up to.

I find responses like those given from the co-founder here infuriating for some reason - far more so than I realistically should. I've always valued transparency when it comes to business, so when I see people dancing around straight answers and then lashing out when people take issue with said responses it just seems so remarkably childish.

I sympathise entirely. Perhaps unwarranted, but this causes /r/punchablefaces levels of infuriation in me. The author of the blog post wrote a very level headed opinion piece, was perfectly polite even on twitter, and certainly didn't call anyone "lame". By contrast, the founder comes off as an overgrown child looking to get rich quick.

The founder should team up with Ja Rule and make a music festival on a remote island...

>far more so than I realistically should

I doubt your anger is out of bounds. We are talking about potential - likely, even - smuggling of illegal goods into a country that has a human rights record that is... less than stellar. And their co-founder is childish and speaks in twisted words to try and avoid the truth.

I'd say your anger is very well-placed.

I don't know anything about airmule's operation or China's customs/security, but the on-board courier industry is a legitimate one that has regulations and procedures that it's not clear the author of this article is aware of.

> "We have found contraband in [courier] shipments," says U.S. Customs official Bob Fischler, "but percentage-wise it is infinitisemal. And in any seizure we made, it was obvious that the on-board courier had nothing to do with it." In fact, at New York' JFK and at London's Heathrow airport, because of the sheer volume of courier shipments, all courier pouches go to a central location for clearance. The courier is typically dismissed before customs physically inspects the shipments.

- From Air Courier Bargains by Kelly Monaghan.

That's a quote from US officials. The author points out you'd be dealing with Chinese officials. It turns out those aren't the same. Read the article to see what happens next.

Then the founder of the company should have provided said links and documentation in response to tweets and communication.

He did, he did...

"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 (CEO) says. "

See. It's perfectly safe (「・ω・)「

Quite a few companies operate in this space. This business idea & its risks have been discussed on HN more than once. I'm surprised that some of these are still around. A likely pivot for these could be to carry specific goods where there are no "dangerous" side effects e.g. importing smartphones, laptops etc. Although they still are not exactly legal.

- https://grabr.io/en/

- http://www.entrusters.com/

- https://backpackbang.com/home

- https://www.piggybee.com/en/

- https://worldcraze.com/

- http://www.canubring.com/

- https://www.manyship.com/

How do you know it's really a Macbook, and not a Macbook box that has been emptied and refilled with heroin and re-shrink-wrapped?

Because you (the traveller) would order it from apple.com and get paid for the cost + courier fee.

That makes sense for security if the traveller buys it. But does that then run into customs problems because you are bringing goods for sale rather than just carrying them for someone else?

> does that then run into customs problems

Quite likely. The traveler is evading duty and subverting the rules.

Founder of a startup, having a major article killing your company and "don't have time on a Saturday with my family to engage".

I understand that family is important, but isn't a situation like this so important that you - at least - replace some time next week by 2hours now to answer to this article?!

Edit: made me think about this xkcd https://xkcd.com/386/

It's always been fashionable for VCs to give large amounts of other people's money to these 'bropreneurs' because they think that some of the hip may rub off on them, or perhaps that a cool image is a sufficient business plan. The one startup every 6-7 years where someone parlays being a massive tool into a huge valuation (Uber the most recent poster child) is enough to keep this model going in perpetuity.

I can just see it at the airport. "Did you pack your bags yourself?". I guess at 40 I'm not the target audience for this, but I'd be worried a younger person trying to save money might end up paying a high price. The name 'airmule' doesn't do it any favours either.

When I was studying in Taiwan in the early 80s, the island's high tariffs motivated travelers to carry suitcases full of stuff--Walkmans, cameras, Italian shoes, etc. Contact a guy in Hong Kong, he gives you a bag, a guy in Taipei picks it up and gives you NT5000, enough to pay for your ticket.

I never got up the courage to try it myself, but friends did. My girlfriend did it once.

Looking back, I realize how exceedingly stupid this was. Had there been heroin inside that camera, you were going to prison for the rest of your life. They didn't (and still don't) screw around.

I heard all sorts of stories. An Australian backpacker was caught at Korean customs with 50 Rolex watches stuffed in his shirt. He was sent up for ten years. Numerous young Americans and Europeans busted for drug smuggling were rotting in prison in Taiwan, Korea, and Japan. At the time, with these countries technically allied with us against Red China, execution was not a politically feasible alternative.

This Mule thing is just another respin of an old practice. Best to avoid.

I've always thought the best way to get a bomb on a plane, was to bribe someone in the crew to smuggle drugs for you (and then give them a bomb that looked like a package of drugs).

This takes things to a whole new level - you could get people to smuggle anything for next to nothing, if you packed in something else. Or, get them to blow up a plane they're on.

There's another company that lets travelers subsidize their flight ticket / earn money for delivering US products to their destination:


Key difference is:

You buy the products locals ordered (locals pay for item + delivery fee upfront into escrow) so there's no risk of a third party hiding drugs or illegal materials.

One risk is if the item is perfectly legal and ordinary in the US but is illegal to import into the foreign country. The courier could wind up paying heavy fines or much worse.

Kinder eggs are an example of an item that is perfectly fine in, say, Canada, but carries a heavy fine for import into the US.

Evading duty is still a legal issue. Some countries have laws that permit you to carry some articles without duty, for personal use. This is a clear subversion of such rules.

This is an amazing idea that works, not the airmule one.

It's significant that the business is about shipments from the US to China. That seems to be hard. Getting stuff shipped from China to the US seems to be ridiculously easy and fast. You can order stuff off Alibaba and get fast delivery via China Packet, which is a postal service with really good rates for China to the US. Delivery in the US is via the USPS. The other direction is much more expensive and slower.

The US needs to renegotiate postal rates with China. China is still getting the "developing country" discount from the USPS.

I don't think shipping from US to China is necessarily expensive, especially considering all those Chinese cargo ships are returning empty. I think the main niche of this service is sending controlled goods to China.

It's not just the shipping costs, either. Apparently importing and exporting items in China is a hugely expensive bureaucratic pain: http://dangerousprototypes.com/blog/2016/02/04/how-to-china-... "In practice, almost everyone doing production in China has some variant of a story where they smuggle chips into the country in a backpack, pants pocket, etc."

> China is still getting the "developing country" discount from the USPS.

I thought imports from China was cheap because it was subsidized by the PRC?

The answer is more complicated...


... and was actually posted here not too long ago!


I remember reading that USPS loses money on every cheap Chinese package - it's a legacy agreement IIRC.

It's the international agreement under the Universal Postal Convention.

There's a good summary here: https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=9794971

Thanks :)

Think it was this that I saw (on HN, and as posted above): https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=14651884

> Plus, you really have to love the founders of this company. I mean, as a startup founder myself, I’m rooting for them. One is a hardcore gamer, the other is a former backup dancer for Gucci Mane, and the third loves beer more than you do. I’m not making this up–this is what they say about themselves on their Web page

This guy clearly doesn't get it. Your startup page is where you post a phip relatable quirky attribute, whereas your actual qualifications go in single-phrase sentences on your twitter bio and after your name on quora answers

/s, hopefully obviously

It was not so long ago that the CBP stopped a business courier off a flight from Guatemala who happened to carry nine pounds of heroin. Because he was a courier, he was not criminally charged, nonetheless he was barred from entry and banned for at least five years. And that's the USA, not China.


This makes me super curious about the pre flight baggage controls. How do they handle someone who picks up the extra bag, but winds up not taking the flight?

With baby formula, i'd just return the bag and apologize, eating the $99. Heroin on the other hand, i could probably move at a steep discount. $1k or so, not worth the risk. $10 or $20k? hmm. The bag needs to be worth at least $1000 in the target country, just to break even.

it seems like pretending to be a stoner, and setting up enough to buy a plane ticket could get you a lot of money for $99. Fake id and a prepaid credit card aren't that hard to come by. It's not like the ID needs to pass TSA inspection, as you're not taking the flight.

Seems like a very risky business. If your customers are willing to be pasties, it'll be ok. but just a couple of sharks completely change the risk profile. Doing stuff that precludes government enforcement of contracts is just crazy crazy risky.

Ha! Typed it on my phone. I indeed meant the second, 'patsy'. Thanks for the correction.

Usually, if you don't checkin or board a flight, the airline will pull your bag off of the flight.

Before clicking on the article I thought that the dangerous catch was that you have to sit in seat 31B and wondered why. The article's title and site name should really be differentiated better in HN's title.

On their website they state "Airmule then manually inspects and verifies each item prior to packaging for a traveler." but I doubt this company that started last year has more experience finding contraband than law enforcement doing it their whole lives who have seen everything. Pretty asymmetric risk profile, save a couple hundred bucks for potentially your life.

Just because an item is totally legal to have in China and legal to carry into China on your person doesn't mean you can bring it in for profit in such a scheme.

There are borders where you can carry through alcohol, petrol and tobacco for personal use but people who make a living off of it are breaking the law.

Of course in the first world all you get is a fine and get your contraband confiscated which just sets you back a month or two, but risking that in China..?

Looks quite shady, especially given we're talking about China. Anything being wrong with the package - not even drugs - that'd be insanely bad - but I'm sure there are many other things which require special papers to get into China, or are prohibited, and if something is wrong, it's the courier's ass on the line. I don't see how it could be worth the risk of being imprisoned in China. I mean it's one thing to be in a "gray area" as an American in the US, with all legal protections and ACLU and so on, and another thing doing the same in China...

And I wonder what TSA thinks about people transporting things that they have little idea about in their luggage?

Pretty sure tsa requires you to know what's in your possession too. Can't really hide behind "it's not mine, I didn't know X was in there!"

The founder is lame and as /u/wjnc mentioned he has a trump-like behavior. The question is very simple: If there is drugs in the shipment, does the traveller get a FREE pass?

The article is lengthy and kind of make this question vague. In my understanding it is a single question: Who bares the responsibility?

Well, it is you the poor traveller. There is no way in hell you can accept such a deal even if you are flying for Free. In fact, if you are, ask yourself the question: Do free meals really exist?

I'm glad that the author of this travel blog is warning people against using Airmule. Someone is going to get in a heckuva lot of trouble.

First: I can only imagine, when checking my bags, getting the question, "Did anyone give you anything to bring on the flight?" and answering, "Yes, my entire 2nd bag belongs to someone else who is paying for half of my ticket."

That alone would be enough to give you extra-special scrutiny when checking in.

But let's assume that you get through security, go on your flight, and arrive. I've traveled to China many times, and have thus put my bag through the customs/airport scanner many times. If they find anything illegal -- and in China, that can mean all sorts of stuff -- you are in Big Trouble. I haven't ever seen anyone pulled aside when going through customs in China, but I don't envy them.

And sure, Airmule can say that they've inspected things, and that this is safe and fun, etc. Just try telling the Chinese customs officials that the drugs don't belong to you, but rather to a startup in Silicon Valley. I'm sure they'll be very attentive.

Airmule's site attempts to calm potential couriers' nerves by saying, "Read this Wikitravel article." (Reference: http://wikitravel.org/en/Air_courier) However, the article says, very clearly:

> You need to be very careful about the legitimacy of the jobs you take. The last thing you want is to be caught > transporting contraband (or worse) on a plane. A good way to avoid this is to use an agent (usually a > representative of the service you are working for), who will take you through customs and clear the contents. > Always check the reputation of the courier company before booking. None which are reliable and legitimate > would ever try to ship anything illegal.

Airmule doesn't promise to have an agent on the arrival side. They do promise that they'll "walk you through" things, but that's very different from physically being there in China and claiming the luggage and any responsibility for it.

The idea is a good one in theory, but as executed, it's half baked -- and might lead to executions of a more literal sort, if people aren't careful.

So, they claim they can have the cake and eat it too - as in, ship the bag as non-personal carrier stuff to avoid prison, and ship it as personal non-carrier stuff to pass customs. Bold.

From their FAQ:

"We don't just ship any item that comes through our front door. Airmule only partners with TSA certified shipping companies.

"Under their Certified Cargo Screening Program, the TSA certifies cargo screening facilities throughout the United States to screen cargo prior to providing it to airlines for shipment on passenger flights." [1]

The TSA however does not search for drugs however from the TSA's site:

"TSA security officers do not search for marijuana or other drugs."[2]

[1] https://airmule.zendesk.com/hc/en-us/articles/115005116068--...

[2] https://apps.tsa.dhs.gov/mytsa/cib_results.aspx?search=marij...

I frequently fly international with zero checked bags and about 5lbs of carry on.

I would love to be able to do so for $99 if someone wants to on-sell my checked allowance.

After reading the article I see the pitfalls I had never thought of, and would obviously want some extremely, extremely clear legalities to make it very clear the bags are not mine, and I'm not bringing them into any country.

No, I did not pack them and, no, I am not bringing them into your country.

Wait...let me get this straight: You carry a package on a plane to China given to you by someone you don't even know? This is a joke, right?

Real life example of a Guatemalan OBC unknowingly bringing heroin into the US: he was deemed not responsible quickly, and got expelled right away with no right to come back for 5 years.


On that note, China is not remotely as understanding as the United States when it comes to these things.

I haven't heard about air couriers for years, but I don't travel much. That said, I was under the impression that for basically all of them the package being couriered was never in the possession of the traveler but was instead packaged as freight and was delivered to the airline as such and handled as such at the receiving end. If the "courier" in question wanted to drop it off or pick it up themselves they'd still have to go to the appropriate air freight terminal.

If these folks are providing packages to travelers to be checked directly by the traveler then they're idiots and so is anyone who takes them up on the offer. If not for the defensive tweets, etc. I'd feel that (as someone else noted) this must be a satire of the 'gig' economy.

Soylent being tongue in cheek with their name is one thing. But Airmule? Why would they want to associate themselves with the most common border crossing association with mules - drug mules? Besides the whole arrangement seeming bad, the name choice is horrible.

Risk of a death penalty for accidentally smuggling heroin? They couldn't pay me to take this flight.

I like the idea but in the world we live in (post 9/11), it is a major security violation.

I don't carry checked bags for the specific reason that I don't want to deal with checked bags. I guess this is for people who want to be as cheap as possible, while simultaneously being as inconvenienced as possible.

If airplane companies take into account that certain percentage of passengers will not arrive and overbook flights wouldn't they also take into account that most passengers will have less than maximum allowed baggage?

Why not just specifically operate in the market of importing baby formula in China.

You can easily subsidize a flight ticket with a checked luggage full of baby formula and for extra security the mule can go buy the formula him or herself.

From their FAQ

Airmule then manually inspects and verifies each item prior to packaging for a traveler. We also guarantee that 100% of the items shipped through our service are safe for travel on commercial aviation.

This is classic lawyer speech (notice the words "safe for travel on commercial aviation"). This just means that there are no harmful things to a plane, but they don't say anything about 'safe for customs'.

If someone came to me with this business idea I'd chuckle and say haha, good one. Of course assuming that it is some joke. It boggles my mind that apparently 3 (presumably reasonable?) people have decided to seriously pursue this idea. It's so bad on so many different levels it may actually be the worst business idea I have ever heard.

Quite a few consumers just go for whatever's cheapest without reading through the laundry lists of caveats or realizing the risks they're taking.

(I for one wouldn't be surprised if they end up successful until a client of theirs actually ends up in trouble serious enough that TV news outlets raise public awareness.)

So if they missed a small pack of drugs that some slipped in there, some ones life is ruined

Some startups just need to die in a fire. This is one of them. (Theranos is another one).

While I agree with most of the article, I don't understand the part where the author is complaining about the bios of the founders/managers.

It's a startup, not old slow mega-corporation where making a joke will get you fired.

Would you trust your life to a guy that has a bio that mentioned how much beer he could drink? This isn’t playtime – you are literally trusting some bro to know the nuances of Chinese customs and manage a team that is supposed to “inspect” courier packages before you trust your life with them.

Would you trust a surgeon with a bio that describes how thouroghly he can consume beer?

International air courier work isn’t the place to be trusting zany, hip dudes. It’s not the place for making jokes, that’s for sure.

The idea is that at least one of the founders should have some specialty in the field they are disrupting.

Is 31B a reference I'm missing? It didn't come up in the article body.

  "You’ll find me sitting in the middle seat, all the way in the back,
  next to the toilets, but smiling the whole way because that seat was
  ridiciculously cheap or even free!"
It's the premise for the travel blog. The author describes it as "the worst possible seat in economy class", but at least it's cheap!


"Seat 31B" is the name of the blog. If you look at the image at the top of the page, it apparently refers to a seat number in economy class.

It's the name of the site, he explains it on the about me page, http://www.seat31b.com/why-another-travel-blog/

The site promotes cheap travel and I think 31b is usually one of the cheaper seats on a plane.

It's the name of the blog

China United Airlines once did the route for CNY488 with carry on only

Cheers everyone, this is Sean Yang, CEO and cofounder of Airmule, the air courier startup with an admittedly strange name that you might have read about earlier today.

Is Airmule legal?

On Board Couriers (OBC) have existed over decades. Their purpose is to service cargo that needs to be delivered in a timely manner. It’s quite an expensive service, often servicing auto parts, airplane parts, important documents, passports, NASA parts, etc. Costs can vary from a few hundred to thousands of dollars. To become an OBC is simple, just call any OBC company and register on their list. In our case, we simply request you to list your trip. The OBC companies size doesn’t have to be the same as Fedex, UPS or any airline cargo department. As long as they follow the TSA’s IAC regulation, only ship items from a “Known Shipper,” and have the cargo secured in a locked area inaccessible by outsiders. At Airmule, we have a surveillance camera over cargo 24/7. (49 CFR 1544.228, 1546.213, 1548.15, 1548.16, and 1548.7.)

So yes, OBC’s are totally legal, as well as all OBC companies. I see many ask the answer to “Did you pack everything yourself” question. The answer is to be honest with Airline company “No, I didn’t. I’m an OBC and I have the manifest, and I know what’s inside my luggage”.

Every single traveler will receive a manifest prior to receiving Airmule shipments Airmule is 100% responsible for the items on the list.There are items we don’t accept if they don’t comply with our policy or the destination country customs policy:

For example:

1. Powdery items. 2. Pills, medicine, prescriptions 3. Unclear liquids (wine, etc.) 4. Live plants 5. Animal products (elephant teeth, fur items, etc.) 6. Counterfeit items

If the Shipment is for commercial purposes, we will declare through the proper channel. We contract with a professional customs brokerage company for every single country we service. In that case, couriers simple leave the item at customs, a receipt will be issued by Customs, and Airmule will handle it onsite, couriers will be relieved from duty at that point. Airmule is not “Smuggling”. We do pay duty on behalf of shippers. Our shipping policy is very restrictive with Senders responsible for all duty fees.

For those who “likes” the name, we can’t do anything about it. Regardless of what we are called; it sounds like you don’t want to work with us. We just hope one day, when you need something urgently, that Airmule is a better and more affordable option to help with delivery, and saves your day.

Airmule has been running for almost 2 years, we’ve helped thousands of travelers to see the world they never were able to see before. The deal we post is 100% authentic, but a very limited offer. In appreciation of your time to read this, we’d like to give a bonus for $100 if you use coupon “ISupportAirmule” when list your trip. If you still have concerns, please do not hesitate to contact me directly at sean@airmule.com

What are the odds the whole thing is an elaborate joke?

Could this be performance art?

This is 100% illegal no doubt

"We'll pay you to take this bag on the airplane for us.".


Besides the quite unnecessary personal attack on the founders ("One is a hardcore gamer, the other is a former backup dancer for Gucci Mane, and the third loves beer more than you do. I’m not making this up–this is what they say about themselves on their Web page") I feel the writer did nothing to back up his claim. The "clear as mud" answer from the founder "same as all OBCs" was a really weird thing to leave up to interpretation of the reader. Nowhere did the writer enlighten me about the actual rights of an On Board Courier. I found this article really lacking in substance, sorry.

Those aren't personal attacks, the author points out a sentence later that they're from the company's own page.

I'm questioning the reasoning for the sarcastic remarks. They add nothing but vitriol to the discussion that should at most be a discussion about the laws surrounding the service.

Well, if you feel like it's perfectly fine for founders to promote their gaming and beer hobbies instead of experience with a very serious industry with literal life or death consequences for couriers in some countries, where the company explicitly rejects any legal liability in their terms of service and has no 24/7 support available, by all means: use their service.

Your "personal attack" is text from https://www.airmule.com/about/ under "Meet the Cofounders".

Makes you confident about Airmule?

It's an about page. Not a resume. I don't understand what that has to do with their qualifications. It's just a random snide remark that has nothing to do with legality of the service.

Not random and not snide. It is the way the company founders describe themselves.

I feel that answering any questions which could very well have legal consequences on Twitter is not a very smart idea. Legal questions are rarely well-answered in 140 chars, even if you're allowed to use emojis.

“Are couriers covered by Common Cartier rules?”

There isn’t much need for anything beyond 3 characters:

“Yes” or “No”

If you asked FedEx that question, there isn’t a legal department response needed. It’s a simple “Yes.”

Also, that question – the public has a right to a clear answer.

“Do your cars have seatbelts?”

“Does your food contain salt?”

These are examples of questions that don’t have gray areas worthy of “legalese.”

If legalese is required that means the expected answer isn’t the same as the actual answer.

> “Do your cars have seatbelts?”

Definitely not a clear question. What if it only ha seatbelts in front but not back? What if they comply with EU regulations but not California regulations, or vice versa?

> “Does your food contain salt?”

Even less clear. Do you know about California prop 65? It is a fail of epic proportions, because "contain" may mean "has enough to cause an effect on an average human", "has enough to cause an effect on a human with extremely rare condition that makes him sensitive to salt orders of magnitude higher than a regular human" or "has enough to be detectable by the most sensitive detector created by modern science". That's even without getting into the weeds about how common table salt is not just sodium chloride, and sodium chloride may be present without adding table salt (many organisms have it so if you eat them you eat salt). Not try to pack it into 140 characters in a way that a hostile journalist can't make a scoop out of it. Good luck.

> If legalese is required that means the expected answer isn’t the same as the actual answer.

Oh if it only were so.

It's assuming there first of all is a simple yes/no answer to the question. An extreme example: Is it legal to shoot a person? Yes or no? Give me a yes or no answer! The answer is "sometimes, maybe, no and yes". I think it's weird that all of a sudden everyone knows enough about Common Carrier rules or OBC's to know what the implications of either a "yes" or a "no" in that case would be.

I personally have no idea. And after reading the article I still don't. Does the writer know? I couldn't see anything passed the sarcasm that would convince me either way.

I would expect more substance in an article on the front page of Hacker news.

If the answer "Are couriers covered by Common Cartier rules?" were "yes" it may have some caveats like: "Yes, but the protection cover only he items send by AirMule, not the personal items in the other bag. Also adding any item to the AirMule bag voids all the protection." [Just in case this is not clear, this is a fake quote.] [Also, check it with your lawyer.] I guess you can reduce it to 140 characters and get a proper lawyer to write it.

If the answer "Are couriers covered by Common Cartier rules?" were "no", the extension is: "No, totally no, 0%, zero, nada, zip!" [fake quote]

Their answers to "Are couriers covered by Common Cartier rules?" is something like: "They will get a seat in the plane and can use the bathroom." [Also, fake quote.] They are not replaying the question, only stating something unrelated.

There is no technical issue here preventing a clear answer due to 140 character limits.

These guys had my email address and could have sent a detailed response. Instead, they sent a short (but clear) one. If they actually wanted a phone interview, they could have asked for one and provided a number to call. And it's possible to send more than one tweet if they wanted to respond that way.

They did link to a FAQ which isn't clear, and their Terms of Service is posted on the page as others have noted. This is what raised my eyebrows to begin with and why I started asking questions.

A friend who is a tech reporter said "When they're responding like this, you know you got 'em." Given that Rory has had all morning to dispute any of the facts in my blog post, and has not done so despite being very active on Twitter, it seems clear that my reporter friend is right.

Pretty easy to link to a company FAQ. If somebody was asking Airbnb similarly serious questions about liability, just imagine if they weren't ready with an FAQ, and one of their execs tweeted in response to a question, "Hey, I'm at Costco at the moment!" Right.

Well, it looks like it's just a bunch of guys trying to get a company off the ground (pun slightly intended). In these cases "I'll route your request to our legal department" may mean "I'll reply to you from a different account after asking my lawyer friend about it at lunch" :) So there might not be any FAQ (hopefully, yet).

A proper reply might be to request an email or physical address to send the actual answer to, or to link to a webpage with the results.

I think the lack of substance is due to the lack of substance in the answers provided by the company.

If I was a potential user of the service and I received these responses I doubt I would feel comfortable in accepting the offer.

The article by the author would be a great place to add some substance, no?

Are you suggesting the blogger should flesh out Airmule's policy? It seems for something that is the core of their business model, Airmule should have a policy written and ready to reference.

They do - their ToS. And it appears to put all liability on the passenger. They haven't substantively addressed reasonable and fair questions around this.

I agree but the substance can only come from the company, ie fuller answers

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