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Sun, Dec 21, 2003 - Page 12 News List

FedEx slaving away to meet Christmas demand

By Claudia Deutsch  /  NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , MEMPHIS, TENNESSEE

It is mid-December in corporate America, and people are partying, not deal-making. They are sending corporate gifts, not prospectuses. They are taking those saved vacation and personal days, not working overtime.

Clearly, they are not working for the FedEx Corp. December vacations? Don't be ridiculous: All of the sorters and the managers, not to mention hundreds of extra part-timers, are on hand -- or at least on call. Lazy afternoons after long holiday lunches? Ha! Every day, from last week through Christmas, FedEx managers spend afternoons on international conference calls, giving one another early alerts on possible delays. And forget about down time for maintenance crews. Sure, by December they have inspected or repaired every one of FedEx's 600 planes and most of its 70,000 trucks, but they, too, must be ready for the inevitable surprises.

"We've got to work our people pretty hard to guarantee that every child gets her Christmas doll on time," said Michael Glenn, executive vice president of FedEx.

Glenn calls the weeks before Valentine's Day and Mother's Day "nice trial runs" for Christmas. In August, there is the blitz of back-to-school wares being shipped to retailers. In November, a mountain of merchandise is delivered to stores preparing for the holiday shopping season.

But for the FedEx system as a whole, last Monday night, in the middle of December, was the mother of all peaks, when the beginning of the most hectic time for air delivery overlapped with the end of the busiest season for ground deliveries. On a typical day, 5 million packages move through FedEx's 161 hectare national hub at Memphis International Airport; on Monday, the total was 7.5 million.

Small wonder that FedEx employees, whether executives, operations gurus or hands-on airport workers, tend to use the same expression -- "controlled chaos" -- in talking about life on peak night.

It takes a while to know just what they mean. Start touring FedEx's hub at 9.30pm on peak night, Dec. 15, and everything seems deceptively quiet. The first planes have not yet arrived. FedEx shuttle buses from the employee parking lot are just starting to disgorge workers at security checkpoints.

But starting around 11 o'clock, things get cracking. Planes fly in, as many as 55 an hour. (Each has the name of a FedEx employee's child emblazoned on its side.) Wheeled tugs pull trains of dollies carrying containers packed with hundreds of packages. Other workers are unloading those containers, shoveling as many as 3,000 packages an hour onto the hub's 322km of conveyor belts, which seem to tumble them willy-nilly into any number of sorting areas.

"It may look like chaos, but this is a well-conditioned, well-organized machine," said Reginald Owens Sr, vice president of Memphis hub operations.

Indeed, after a few hours, even the uninitiated can pick up on the rhythm of the place. Think it's a random decision to put employees sorting packages aimed at Sacramento, California, right next to those with packages going to Fort Lauderdale, Florida? No. Memphis is on Central time, so it has much less leeway when shipping to the East Coast, where it is an hour later, than to the West Coast, where it has two extra hours to play with. If there is a delay, the workers on the West Coast line can turn quickly to help the ones hustling to meet East Coast deadlines. Even if there are no glitches, it makes sense to load the East Coast flights first, then have the workers turn around and load the West Coast flights when they are done.

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