Santa's Got Nothing on These Guys

Memphis is the new North Pole: inside FedEx's record-breaking night.

January 8, 2009, 12:26 AM

MEMPHIS, Tenn., Dec. 17, 2007 — -- You think Santa has a hard job delivering millions of packages on a single night? Well, he only does it once a year. FedEx does it every day.

FedEx is constantly moving packages around the world. At any given moment a container of fresh fish from Japan might be heading to a sushi restaurant in New York while a crate of car parts from Detroit travels to a mechanic in Houston.

Getting millions of packages from point A to point B — and having them arrive on time — is a mammoth challenge on the quietest of days. But no day compares to today, when those items are moving across the planet in addition to all of your Christmas gifts. It is expected to be the busiest shipping day in FedEx's history.

Consider this: It takes 669 airplanes, 75,000 trucks and 280,000 workers to move an astonishing 11.3 million pieces of cargo. And if any of it is late, there will be some very upset children Christmas morning.

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Memphis, Tenn., is the home of Elvis, the blues and the keystone of FedEx's global network.

From the moment you arrive, you know this place is different. Signs at the airport point passengers to gates and baggage claim, but also announce: "Memphis — America's Distribution Center." An ad in the terminal's hallways reminds you that more cargo goes through this airport than any other airport in the world.

A package sent from Miami to Seattle or Houston to Denver will most likely go through here.

Each night hundreds of airplanes land in Memphis, and roughly 9 million pounds of cargo is unloaded, sorted and then put back on the planes and sent out around the world.

At peak times, one plane is landing or taking off every 30 seconds.

The volume of packages makes it one of the most complicated logistical operations in the world. The Memphis hub covers the space of about 370 football fields and has more than 300 miles of conveyor belts.

Touring the massive facility, it's easy to get dizzy. Something is always moving, whether it be an airplane, baggage cart or the packages. Everything happens with incredible speed.

A package traveling from the West Coast to East Coast will spend just 90 minutes on the ground in Memphis.

Tucked away in a nondescript office park near the Memphis airport is a building that looks like just about any other in corporate America. But inside is a complex network of computers constantly tracking and communicating with each airplane in the massive FedEx fleet.

"There is not a minute of any day where there is not a FedEx jet in the sky somewhere," said Paul Tronsor, managing director of the FedEx Global Operation Control Center. "Whether it be Des Moines, Iowa, or Dubai, [United Arab Emirates] we know exactly where that airplane is and what its route of flight is and when it's supposed to get to its destination."

Projected on video wall — think of NASA's Mission Control — is a map of the world showing the current whereabouts of every plane, the detailed flight and maintenance schedule of each jet for the next six days and a look at developing weather problems.

In this room, last-minute decisions are made to divert a plane from one airport to another because of fog, snow or any other reason.

FedEx employs 15 full-time meteorologists who constantly monitor thunderstorms, blizzards, hurricanes and typhoons around the world.

The weather forecasts most people are familiar with target a large area, typically a city and all its suburbs. FedEx wants something different: a forecast pinpointed to within five miles of its airports, said Melvin W. Bradley, manager of weather services. The only thing that matters to FedEx is whether or not it can land at the airport when it needs to.

Bradley and his staff work to predict exactly what time rain will turn to snow or sleet, a key piece of information needed to know when scheduling a flight.

Bradley said he can't just predict sleet "later this evening."

"That's not good enough," he said. "We have to be as precise as we can be."

Each night's game plan changes by the minute. If a video game supplier shows up moments before the shipping deadline with 10 times its normal shipment, somehow FedEx has to accommodate the extra cargo.

And that means the shipper has to be ready for just about anything.

Each night a half dozen planes are sent up into the sky almost completely empty. These "overlift flights" zig and zag a strange route across a region, ready to touch down at a moment's notice and pick up extra cargo that would not fit in the regular flight.

One such flight leaves Duluth, Minn., each night and then flies out of its way — over Chicago, Detroit, Indianapolis and St. Louis — before landing in Memphis. Having an airborne plane prepared to easily divert to another city saves FedEx precious minutes and allows for unexpected shipments to arrive on time.

"We fly it like a big Z," Tronsor said of the path of the overlift flights. "At FedEx, minutes matter to us."

The lifeblood of FedEx's operations is its 669 airplanes, which serve 375 airports around the world. Simply based on the size of its fleet, FedEx is the second-largest airline in the United States, surpassed only by American Airlines.

Each night, flights from Paris, London and Sao Paulo, Brazil, land in Memphis. The shortest flight — just 27 minutes in the air — comes from Nashville, Tenn., 200 miles away. The longest is from Tokyo, roughly 6,600 miles and 13 hours away. Flights like the one from Tokyo require a second crew on board who sleep until it is their turn to fly.

By 10:30 p.m. each day, passenger flights at the Memphis airport cease and the airport essentially is turned over to FedEx. During ideal conditions, FedEx can land 82 planes an hour, using three of the airport's four runways. But weather is a big factor. One night last week a dense fog lowered that number to 56 planes an hour.

Each plane is parked around the massive sorting center building. The giant cargo containers carrying packages are quickly unloaded and pulled over to the sorting facility, just like your luggage at the airport, only on a larger scale.

More than 8,000 workers then take over in a process called "the sort." Incoming packages are turned so their shipping labels are facing up. Workers touch a package for less than a second to do this. They don't even have a moment to guess what is inside.

Scanners then read the bar codes and computers take over. The boxes disappear into a maze of conveyer belts, pushed left or right and down various chutes, depending on their destination. Human hands only intervene when there is a jam.

Within a few short minutes the packages arrive at the large airplane containers, where workers do a final sort, separating packages into various routes within a destination city. The containers are then loaded back onto the planes.

By 4 a.m., just about all the planes are back in the air, spreading around the world.

Similar operations are also going on in other FedEx locations — including Indianapolis; Anchorage, Alaska; Oakland, Calif.; and Paris — but none come close to the size of the operation in Memphis. On a night where Memphis gets 150 flights, Indianapolis will see only 50.

The FedEx system deals with 6.5 million packages on an average day. But today, with the added volume of Christmas gifts, it will handle 11.3 million. It's the busiest day in the company's 36-year history.

Driving some of this additional traffic are online purchases. This holiday season, $42 billion in online retail sales are expected, up 18.5 percent from last year, according to consulting firm TNS Retail Forward.

But it's not just gifts and supplies moving through FedEx's network. There is also plenty of regular mail. For the last six years, the U.S. Postal Service has hired FedEx to move its express mail across the country. Enough mail now moves though the system that the Postal Service is FedEx's largest customer.

FedEx says it rarely loses a package.

"It's pretty hard to lose something when it's all within your system," said Mike Pigors, the FedEx senior vice president who oversees all the hubs in the United States.

But on the rare occasion that a package is found without a shipping label — FedEx blames poor packing — the Overgoods Department takes over. The staff there will tear apart the box and do everything possible to find the owner, Pigors said, including looking at the content's serial number and calling the manufacturer to see who bought the product.

That's nice, but exactly how many packages are lost?

Pigors wouldn't give a number. His answer was just: "Not very often."

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