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. \nClearly, 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. \n"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. \nGlenn 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. \nBut 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. \nSmall 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. \nIt 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. \nBut 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. \n"It may look like chaos, but this is a well-conditioned, well-organized machine," said Reginald Owens Sr, vice president of Memphis hub operations. \nIndeed, 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. \nIn short, if something is within FedEx's control, it is planned for, rehearsed and rehearsed again. But even the best plan cannot account for all the unknowns. \n"Planning for peak starts the night after it's over, and it never stops," Glenn said, speaking from the relative calm of FedEx's corporate headquarters, 24km from the hub. "But the one thing we know is that, with all the planning, we're going to be wrong." \nFedEx files its peak-night flight plan with the Federal Aviation Administration 45 days in advance, "but we're tinkering with it to the last minute," said John Dunavant, managing director for global operations control. \nAs a plane rolls in, a 15-person team armed with hand-held scan-ners is waiting. A few team mem-bers board the plane and guide multi-tonne containers from the body and belly of the craft to the offloading machines. As soon as the containers reach the ground, other team members start switching them to the dollies. The total unloading time is 20 minutes, tops. \nOff go the trains of dollies to the "input" areas, where the containers are unloaded and unpacked. Teams of workers place unwieldy packages on a slow-moving conveyor belt, from which other employees pluck them according to the ZIP codes on the address labels. But most packages go onto fast-moving belts that take them to the heart of the "matrix," the main "output" area. (FedEx people swear that they were using the "matrix" name long before the movie gave it panache.) \nAlong the way, electronic eyes "read" the destinations and shunt the packages off to one of 12 secondary belts, arranged by ZIP code. (From the time a package is picked up from a customer to the time it is delivered, it is scanned by someone or something a minimum of 12 times; international packages may be scanned 23 times.) \nFor most of the night, prominent monitors scattered throughout the hub display a big yellow number: 2:07. That is supposedly Zero Hour, the time at which all incoming packages must be on the conveyor belts so that every outbound plane can be loaded in time to make its next-day delivery guarantee. \nWell, not exactly. Actually, the FedEx engineering department has already taken into account the anticipated record volumes, intermittent spots of bad weather and high winds in Memphis that day. They know, for example, that because of the winds, many planes will have to land to the south of their usual runways, and to taxi an extra 20 minutes to their appointed gates. So, they have set 2:43am as the actual drop-dead deadline, but they don't want anyone to know that until they have to. \nSomewhere around 1:15am, they change the monitors to say 2:20. At 2am it is moved to 2:30. But around 2:30am, the monitors say 2:43, and the color will be red -- a tip-off that this is no longer a movable target. \nThis night, the hub makes its deadline, and by 3am, planes are starting to take off on schedule. Finally, employees can slow down. \nBut not for long. Come January, there is another peak looming -- for all the unwanted or damaged or otherwise rejected stuff that people want to return to stores. And it is almost time to start planning for next year's anticipated peak night.
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