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Go behind the scenes as UPS, FedEx race to deliver in time for Christmas

Posted at 10:40 AM, Dec 10, 2014
and last updated 2014-12-23 15:38:30-05

Don’t let your kids read this – but Santa doesn’t wear red.

This holiday season is expected to be the biggest in the history of package delivery, thanks to an increase in holiday shopping and an improved economy. UPS, FedEx and the U.S. Postal Service each expect about a 10 percent increase in volume this holiday.

To meet that demand, they’ll hire more than 150,000 temporary employees to deliver more than a billion holiday packages. After all, 9 out of 10 Americans celebrate Christmas in one form or another.

But that’s not the whole story.

Christmas comes early

In the early morning light, after coffee and donuts (a treat for meeting performance goals) UPS drivers of the 200-truck Sharonville, Ohio hub arrange in a semicircle. They do a communal stretch and go over the day’s safety lesson.

Veteran driver Greg Schneider, 53, holds up a plastic tricycle and a sign that reads, “back up only when necessary.” Backing up the trucks less means fewer accidents. With thousands of trucks on the road nationally, driving millions of hours, that adds up.

The next day’s lesson – driver health. In the rush to deliver, it’s important to remember the little things.

“It’s all hands on deck. Everyone just needs to do their job the way we were trained, do it safely and then we’ll be able to take care of our customer’s needs,” Schneider said. “It’s not easy to do but we’re trained professionals.”

This is Schneider’s 36th Christmas with UPS. His hands are one of the thousands that touch the holiday gifts of grandkids, cousins and in-laws.

“We handle a lot of packages this time of year, but UPS has hired enough people. We purchase more vehicles. We’ve built more hubs. We’ve updated more facilities,” Schneider said.

One thing that’s changed in 36 years is that the trucks are fitted with Orion, a computer system that determines the most efficient route for each driver to take.

The technology allows UPS to save gas, increase delivery stops per truck and overall make better use of the resources it already has.

They’ll need that capacity to avoid a delivery driver catastrophe: having to make last-minute deliveries on Christmas day.

Waiting until the last minute for the holiday orders is still not a great idea, though.

“But even if you do, we’ll do our best to get the packages there,” Schneider said.

The 200 engines start and trucks taxi out of the hanger like jets at the airport. Within minutes, the hub is silent and cold.

The neverending conveyor belt

Handhelds bleep, boxes thump and somewhere a truck radio is blasting “November Rain.”

At a FedEx Express local distribution center in Cincinnati, handlers and drivers get to work after their own pep talk. Their uniforms and trucks are a lighter shade and the donuts are a little heavier on the glaze. Yet the mission is the same — deliver.

That’s far from the first step.

Planning for the holidays begins up to eight months in advance. Right around Easter, FedEx is working with customers — in this case the online retailers — to figure out their needs.

“It’s tough to mentally prepare because there are a lot of people who are going to work a lot of hours. They don’t see their families too much,” said Jeffrey Bronner, Fedex Operations manager. “It’s pretty rough from Thanksgiving onto Christmas.”

By 7 a.m., tractor-trailers start to arrive from hubs in Indianapolis and Memphis. This is the morning sort, a 90-minute ritual undertaken before most people are turning on their morning shower. Some of those customers will have their package by breakfast.

The packages come off the trailers in heavy metal containers, each about the size of a SUV. They glide on top of a floor that’s lined with slippery wheels, which stops at a conveyer belt that seems to never end.

The employees have about an hour to unload the trailers, sort the packages and get them onto their delivery trucks, which are backed up to the belt like leaves growing on a branch. That’s all before they go out to make their deliveries.

Each package is scanned (up to 20 times a day), sorted and put on a truck. A few are pulled aside to get patched up. Documents go in bins. Just as the belt starts to clear, another tractor-trailer backs in.

More crates, more boxes — oh, there goes a set of snow tires!

On an average day, FedEx will handle a little more than 10 million of these packages. That will more than double on their “peak day” of Dec. 15.

It’s a “crazy” but “special” time of year, said Ben Noschang, a young delivery driver now in his 10th year at FedEx.

“It’s a little like being Santa Claus,” Noschang said. “It gives you pride in your job when you know it’s something a child will open on Christmas morning.”

Is there anything shoppers should know about when they click that “checkout” button?

Noschang’s eyes move to his colleagues, still pulling packages off the belt.

“Be patient,” he said. “There’s a lot going on. We do our best to get it to you on time.”

The sort is done. But the month-long stretch between Black Friday and a White Christmas is barely underway.

Gavin Stern is a national digital producer for the Scripps National Desk. Follow him on twitter at @GavinStern or email him at gavin.stern@scripps.com.