Image: FedEx workers
Greg Campbell  /  AP
Moving the mountain ... of packages that is. Workers sort through parcels at FedEx's Memphis hub on Thursday.
updated 12/17/2006 6:53:05 PM ET 2006-12-17T23:53:05

Alex Vergos spends his usual workday at FedEx Express in a quiet office in front of a computer. But not this time of year.

It’s the busy season for the world’s largest cargo airline, and office workers like Vergos who volunteer for extra duty can find themselves on a windy tarmac unloading planes or in a cavernous sorting house wrestling boxes onto conveyor belts.

FedEx Express is the air-cargo division of FedEx Corp., which expects its busiest day of the year Monday — with a record of 9.8 million packages moving through its express and ground networks.

On the busiest day last year, Dec. 19, FedEx Corp. delivered 8.9 million packages. On average, the company moves about 6 million packages daily.

“This is the bread and butter of our business,” Vergos said as the controlled chaos of FedEx’s Memphis “superhub” swirled around him. “People from auditing come out, people from finance.”

Meanwhile, at Atlanta-based UPS, employees were bracing for their busiest day on Wednesday when the company’s worldwide air and ground systems expected to deliver 21 million packages, up from a daily average of 15 million.

FedEx operations are spread around the world, but FedEx Express’ Memphis hub is the company’s single largest facility for package sorting and shipping. It’s where the small airline that became FedEx Corp. began.

On April 17, 1973, Federal Express took to the air with 14 small planes, delivering a total of 186 packages to 25 U.S. cities on its first night.

Now the 300-acre Memphis hub handles 400 flights a day by huge, wide-body jets, plus an equal number of truck arrivals and departures.

Over an average day, a half-million packages an hour can move through the hub, most of them during the “night sort,” a three-hour, breakneck hustle ending about 2 a.m. to guarantee morning deliveries on the East Coast.

The nightly sort is a wonder of speed and timing involving an army of more than 8,000 workers, many scurrying around on tractors pulling small trains of shipping containers.

For FedEx’s busiest day, FedEx Express expected to handle nearly 5 million packages, with the Memphis hub getting about 1.7 million, or about 200,000 more than a regular workday.

FedEx Ground, the company’s primary trucking and home-delivery division, estimated its busiest day this year was Dec. 11 with 4.9 million packages.

Headquartered in Pittsburgh, FedEx Ground has 29 shipping hubs around the country, while FedEx Express has 10 air express hubs worldwide.

Reginald Owens, vice president in charge of the Memphis hub’s night sort, said 700 to 800 office workers volunteer to pitch in with package handling for a few hours each during the busiest week of the Christmas season.

“It’s great for morale,” he said. “And when you go up an extra 200,000 to 300,000 packages, we need that extra hands-on help.”

Vergos, who ordinarily works on computer software, has helped out on the sorting line for about 15 years.

“Last year, I loaded race-car tires into a container for three solid hours,” he said. “I got tires, but a lot of people get sweaters or maybe end up in the document sort.”

The Memphis hub’s primary automated sorting line for packages up to 75 pounds is called the “matrix.” Its crisscrossing network of conveyor belts handles 160,000 packages an hour, moving them from belt to belt by bar code according to regional or city destinations.

Workers catching waves of boxes from a huge stainless steel slide, set the packages upright and feed them onto the main belts. The machinery takes over from there.

As a package passes under a laser scanner, a signal keys a mechanical arm that pushes the box onto another conveyor belt and toward its next switching point. Finally, it ends up in the belly of a cargo jet headed for its ultimate destination.

“All it takes for a human being is placing it on the belt,” Vergos said. “All you have to know is label up.”

A similar system for smaller packages and documents handles 325,000 items and hour, while large packages are sorted by hand.

The hub has parking bays for 150 aircraft, and planes from around the country and abroad continue to arrive throughout the sort to be unloaded and repacked.

From an observation tower near the hub’s center, the scene below is one of constant movement. Work crews swarm arriving planes and begin unloading them as soon as they get to docking stations, while other crews pack nearby aircraft and ready them for takeoff.

“About every 90 seconds, we’re landing an aircraft,” said Marcus Martinez, a senior manager for hub operations.

© 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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