$99 Beijing Flights – With A Dangerous Catch

A startup called Airmule has recently made a big splash by offering $99 flights to Beijing. Obviously there’s a catch. The catch in this case is that you have to give up one of your checked bags (they appear to book you on carriers that allow two checked bags), and your other checked bag is a courier shipment. So, sharing economy, right? Seems like a perfect opportunity for a startup to move fast and break things. Most people don’t check two bags anyway so why not leverage this opportunity to make shipments of up to 50 pounds at low cost, with the fastest delivery possible?

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:

Airmule cofounder photos

These guys totally have you covered.

So, despite the obviously strong qualifications in air cargo handling and logistics possessed by the founding team, the reason why I’d personally pass on this is that there’s a really big catch–one so serious it could potentially make you the star of an episode of “Locked Up Abroad.”

When you pass through Customs–particularly Customs in Beijing–you are personally responsible for everything that you bring into the country with very few exceptions. 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. Common carriers are considered by governments to be transportation carriers only. They aren’t held responsible for the contents of the shipments they carry; full responsibility lies with the people sending and receiving the shipment.

If you’re acting as an air courier, you may not have any of those protections. You could be fully liable for what you carry through Customs. So, that suitcase of apparel you’re supposedly carrying for a fashion show? If it’s loaded with heroin, that’s on you, and the penalty for that in China is death (no ifs, ands or buts). The suitcase full of baby formula? If you didn’t know that it’s illegal to bring it into China, it doesn’t matter: the massive fine is all yours if you get caught.

Airmule takes a bunch of reassuring-sounding security measures. For example, they participate in a TSA inspection program which verifies that shipments are safe for air transportation. You do too–by letting the TSA inspect your bag when you check it in (although in all fairness, there are some additional security measures cargo companies comply with, and Airmule says they do this). Airmule claims that they inspect shipments as well, and I think they probably do. However, while this provides reasonable assurance that whatever you’re carrying won’t cause the plane to crash, it doesn’t provide as strong an assurance that what you’re carrying is actually legal to carry into the country where you’re carrying it.

I reached out to Airmule to ask them to clarify who is liable for shipments. Just like the Airmule FAQ, I got an answer that sounded reassuring while skirting the question:

Evasive asnwer from Rory

This answer wasn’t reassuring.

So, I pressed for a clearer answer, and got one that is, to me, as clear as mud. I’ll leave it to you to draw your own conclusions:

Rory Is Evasive

I think this is a roundabout way of saying “No”

I lived in Beijing for 3 years, so know that there’s a legitimate demand for this sort of thing. There are a lot of goods that are imported into China through Customs gray areas: they can’t be imported commercially, but they can be imported in personal quantities. One example is certain food items. You’re allowed to hand carry quantities of foodstuffs that are in line with personal consumption or gift-giving, even if importers aren’t allowed to bring in these goods. Similarly, you can bring in bottles of alcoholic beverages that aren’t available in China using your personal Customs allowance. And baby formula is another popular item. You can bring in a limited quantity (the regulation is fuzzy and seems to currently be “as many cans as you can convince Customs is yours”) of foreign-made baby formula for personal use. Every time I left the country, I’d be deluged with orders from new mothers in my office–this is a very popular item given ongoing scandals about tainted milk powder sold in China.

Other stuff is less gray area and more considered to be smuggling. For example, Apple products cost about 40% more in mainland China than they do abroad, so they’re popular items to smuggle in luggage. Even something as innocuous as books could be a really major problem in China. Books and literature are closely controlled in mainland China. That suitcase full of Chinese-language books you’re carrying might actually be hardcore prohibited political speech that could get you in a huge amount of trouble. How good is your Chinese?

And then, there’s the issue of drugs. All you need to do is watch “Border Security” to see all of the inventive ways that drugs can be concealed. If the courier company you’re working with doesn’t figure out that the shipment you’re carrying is actually drugs, but border guards do, your cheap vacation could turn into the last flight of your life. China doesn’t mess around–drugs equal the death penalty and given their history of the Opium War, being a foreigner will get you zero slack. In fact, you’ll get less than a Chinese person would.

Being able to fly for steep discounts as an air courier isn’t a new thing. This is something that has been around for decades. It just hasn’t gotten very popular, because usually you’re going to places where express courier services aren’t able to operate easily (such as Burkina Faso). And there are all kinds of shipments, to all kinds of locations, where hand carrying an item makes the most sense–whether it’s transplant organs, life-saving medicines that require refrigeration, aircraft parts, or other critical shipments that just need to be delivered by the fastest route possible.

I really don’t want to come off as sounding unsupportive of startups, or of this team. I really love innovations that will help people travel and see the world for less. I am the founder of a dating startup myself (one where we’ve had to make some really tough decisions about the trade-offs between usability and security for our users–we have gotten it right so far, but I know it’s only a matter of time before we have a bad day). That being said, there is a massive amount of risk that 20 year old backpackers may be accepting in order to score a cheap holiday, and they probably don’t know that they’re undertaking this risk. As an air courier, you are–in a literal sense–putting your life in the hands of a courier company, and trusting your life and freedom with the integrity of whatever you are carrying for them. Take this seriously, check out the shipment yourself, ask lots of questions, watch a ton of episodes of “Border Security” to find out how inventive smugglers can be, and if you aren’t 100% sure…

…just walk away. A cheap ticket isn’t worth it.

UPDATE

One of the co-founders of Airmule isn’t happy with this article and disputes the facts as I described them. Since the facts about his service came from his own tweets and email I’m not sure where the dispute is, exactly, but I’m happy to correct the record if anything I have written is factually incorrect.

Rory Felton email

Here’s the email I got from Airmule answering my questions

Rory had the following to say on Twitter:

Notwithstanding the tone of the response–which is arguably justified if the facts are wrong–I have offered Rory and Airmule (and will offer the entire air courier industry) an opportunity to respond to any facts that I got wrong. Thus far, this hasn’t happened. Since calling me “unprofessional” and “lame” doesn’t really help to correct the record should any facts be in dispute, I do hope we can have a facts based conversation going forward.

EPILOGUE

Airmule ultimately didn’t dispute any of the facts in this blog post. In fact, their Terms of Service explicitly places full Customs liability with the person carrying the suitcase (many thanks to the helpful reader who pointed this out). NOTE: Airmule has stealth-edited their Terms of Service, the original is here.

Rory also claimed that the Terms of Service was out of date. I’ll leave this to the interpretation of the reader:

another lie

I’m not sure how to read this, but….

Would I personally do this? Not on my life! The risk is definitely not worth it.

27 thoughts on “$99 Beijing Flights – With A Dangerous Catch

  1. Derkle Turflich says:

    One-adjective sentences on Twitter… Why does that seem so familiar? Sad.

    Seriously though why didn’t you consult with me also, before writing this lame hit piece? Absurd. I’m bathing my dog though, real busy.

  2. There’s always a catch when it’s too good to be true, but I think it’s reasonable.

  3. Sex God says:

    Publicity is like sex, even the worst is good.

  4. JD says:

    This is not hard. For $99 + $5 of tape/etc. I would open the box, inspect it myself, then reseal it/etc… If I’m taking the risk, then I should be able to verify.

    1. True story says:

      Ok, you open a box and there is a can with baby formula. Are you sure this formula doesn’t have 50% of cocain in it?

      1. bongo_jeans says:

        Just chop out a gacker and find out – I’d rip a line of fire ants for a $99 flight to Beijing

        1. TProphet says:

          We all have a different risk tolerance, I suppose. If risking your life is worth a few hundred bucks, go for it!

  5. JD says:

    Just open it yourself for $5 in Tape/etc.

  6. Marcel Ranicki says:

    Thanks for this investigative piece, I appreciate you asking him the questions multiple times so that he was forced to (shy away from an) answer. Helps keep customers lookin’ for a good deal, like me, protected. Although it did seem shady anyway.

  7. LatoSans says:

    “How about we have a call and I explain…” FIVE MINUTES LATER, “…I’m at Costco and don’t have time on a Saturday…” That’s not how to handle media incidents like this Rory. If you offer to have a dialog with someone, then five minutes later tell them you’re busy cause you’re out shopping, that will create a lot of doubt in your brand/company.

    The first thing that went through my head after reading the Tweets was, “Well, I hope Rory doesn’t use the Costco excuse when someone gets arrested.” I was really considering using your site down the road to do some cheap travelling, but now not so much.

  8. Why says:

    Picking fights on the internet *does* prove to hold at least some entertainment value, good article but try harder next time.

  9. James says:

    It’s called airmule and you didn’t think to check it’s not a hoax???

  10. Still Lolling says:

    “AirMULE?” Seriously?

  11. Randall P McMurdo says:

    Some startups deserve to die in a fire. This is one of them.

  12. jojo says:

    lolrekt them scrubs!

  13. Ron Dennis says:

    Great article, glad you’re not allowing yourself to be intimidated by people that have time to lay tile but not to defend their business model.

  14. Christian Walde says:

    I think it’s worth highlighting the contradictions between theese tweets, the TOS and the FAQ:

    https://twitter.com/nocleverhandle/status/894218586142724096 “Who is liable to Chinese customs?”

    https://twitter.com/Roryfelton/status/894219523682729984 “Airmule is.”

    https://www.airmule.com/terms-of-service/ “AIRMULE CANNOT AND DOES NOT CONTROL THE CONTENT CONTAINED IN ANY PACKAGE AND THE CONDITION, LEGALITY OR SUITABILITY […] AIRMULE IS NOT RESPONSIBLE FOR AND DISCLAIMS ANY AND ALL LIABILITY”

    https://airmule.zendesk.com/hc/en-us/articles/115004938167-Can-I-inspect-the-shipments- “However, please note that Airmule manually inspects and verifies each item for safety before traveler handoff.”

    1. TProphet says:

      Also note that I politely asked for some evidence that Airmule is responsible, because this would presumably require a special arrangement with China Customs, and Rory did not respond.

      1. Christian Walde says:

        And now they’ve stealth-edited their TOS.

        1. Christian Walde says:

          Screenshot of the original TOS: https://pbs.twimg.com/media/DGkOFVRWAAE7Vmc.jpg

  15. A says:

    I arrived here from this article in Russian: https://meduza.io/shapito/2017/08/07/v-kalifornii-osnovali-startap-kotoryy-otpravlyaet-v-pekin-za-99-no-est-nyuans-vas-mogut-posadit

    They have put their report in the “circus” section, which is a proper classification for this kind of start-up

  16. Kinsley Smith says:

    One of the founders Sean’s post on hn:

    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

    I would add: 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.

    1. TProphet says:

      How is the way I described the founders a personal attack? This is how they describe themselves on their very own Web page. It’s right there in the screen shot.

      I asked a simple “yes or no” question, and didn’t get anything even close to a “yes or no answer.” Yep, that’s clear as mud.

  17. TheBigZ says:

    Very “professional” Rory, very “professional”. Handled it like a pro. You definitely never ever lived in China or even been there. Showing up at customs with a bag filled with drugs and saying “it’s not mine”; I’d like to see you do that and not get thrown in jail. If you do that, then I am convinced this service is worth using.

  18. Susan N says:

    Airmule – are you interested in buying the space inside my butt for smuggling as well?

  19. Xiang says:

    Well it’s not true that Apple products are 40% more expensive. They’re slightly more expensive compared with those sold in HK perhaps, but that applies to products sold literally anywhere else in the world. If you compare the prices to those in a moderately tax-heavy country such as Germany, they are much lower.

    Also, I don’t think the Opium War has anything to do with the penalties you get. The law is the law and it should be the same anyways whether you’re a foreigner or a Chinese.

    Anyways, the points you make are definitely valid. They are of course unhappy that your post might ruin their business but the risk is always there with any kind of unconventional product. It’s up to the customers to think about what to make of them.

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