Although it is a work of fiction, Antoine Saint-Exupéry's exploration of an administrator's hard choices draws on real-life situations.
The novella explores what was then a relatively new and extremely dangerous service: nighttime airmail delivery in rural South America. The mail service director, Rivière, is responsible for keeping up the scheduled deliveries but is also concerned with the pilots. Although he cannot control the natural elements, Rivière must evaluate the available information about such things as weather conditions and decide if it is safe for pilots to fly.
Although others may see him as detached or uncaring, as well as overly devoted to the company, Rivière tries to be impartial among all the pilots. His fairness is tested after two pilots die and he must interact with the families.
The author's main messages are the difficulty of retaining one's humanity while keeping a level head in a crisis and how to weigh the needs of the individual against those of the group for whom one is responsible.