How FedEx and UPS Made the Airport an Anti-Factory

aerotropolis2 thumb 150x150 How FedEx and UPS Made the Airport an Anti FactoryThe word “aerotropolis,” coined by UNC business professor John D. Kasarda, means “a new urban form placing airports in the center with cities growing around them, connecting workers, suppliers, executives, and goods to the global marketplace.” Below, in this exclusive TFT excerpt from the new book Aerotropolis: The Way We’ll Live Next, written by journalist Greg Lindsay and Kasarda, we get a peak at how the terribly efficient air-delivery giants FedEx and UPS factor into the model.

The midnight skies over the Memphis and Louisville airports are filled with stars bearing down on you. Wait on the tarmac long enough and they gradually come into focus— 727s, 747s, 757s, 767s, 777s, A-300s, and MD-11s, blinking steadily as they approach in parallel, landing every ninety seconds on each airport’s twin runways. The biggest difference, to my eye, was that FedEx’s fleet approached like a buzzing swarm in the northern sky, all seemingly trying to land at once, while in Louisville the incoming “browntails” landed from the south, veering wide around the airfield one by one. They line up single file, bunched as tightly together as pearls on a necklace, at least from the controllers’ point of view.

I found the UPS Worldport the more interesting of the two. The hub at Memphis is larger, but being stuck at number two had spurred UPS to try harder, and its outsize role in Louisville meant the mechanics of the aerotropolis were easier to see. I spotted it in the spooky clearings along the airport fence where homes had been demolished and trees clear-cut to the stumps in anticipation of some future use that UPS planners hadn’t imagined yet.

I paid a visit one spring before its expansion, which has added another million square feet to its footprint. There were four million square feet within its giant white box already, roughly half the size of downtown Louisville. It actually consumes more electricity than the entire waterfront at night, even though vast stretches are dimly lit and unoccupied.

Seeing the sort demands pulling an all-nighter. The Worldport handles more than a million packages daily, most of them between 11:00 p.m. and 4:00 a.m. In Memphis, FedEx computers estimate nightly when the sort should be finished, and the approaching zero hour (and minute) blinks red on screens posted throughout the hub. There is no less a sense of urgency in Louisville, even if the countdown isn’t so obvious.

By half past midnight, the string of pearls is thinning out and the ground thickening with aircraft taxiing to gates or remote stands for un- loading. It may take as long as forty-five minutes before their packages are added to the sort, which is why—in an operation where every minute is weighed and measured—there is a definite hierarchy to the jockeying planes. Those bound to and from the West Coast are given the best spots, as they arrive last and must depart first due to the distances traveled. (Second-day-air packages are typically absent altogether, routed through the hub during the more relaxed daytime sort.) All of this is calculated by the UPS hive mind of intelligent software more adept at sorting planes and packages than any harried human planner.

What emerges from the planes is not a loose stream of boxes but a sequence of aluminum canisters, abbreviated by the ramp workers to “cans.” Pie-sliced and semicircular, cans are to air cargo what the container is to shipping and trucking. Depending on the shape, they’re roughly the size of a U-Haul truck or van. You’ll find scarred and battered ones stamped with airline logos in cargo depots scattered around the world. Their shapes reflect the cylindroid interiors of empty cargo jets—unlike passengers, they can be squeezed against the walls and require no overhead bins. Cans might weigh as much as two tons each, but they are easily moved by staff working solo or in tandem, thanks to miles of inverted casters and ball bearings studded in the Worldport’s floors and at gates. The cans need only a solid push to glide across them into the hub or onto the caravans of waiting tugs.

If all goes well, each package inside will be touched only twice by a pair of hands—once exiting its can upon arrival, and then again as it’s placed into a second can for departure. The progress of each parcel is guided by the “smart label” affixed to it at pickup. The labels contain a zip code and what was described to me as “a string of characters that is proprietary to UPS.” In other words, a tracking number. My guide was delicate in his phrasing because tracking numbers happen to have been invented in Memphis.

They are descended from an older and more fundamental technology, one that undergirds not only overnight delivery and e-commerce but also those stacks of Victoria’s Secret catalogs in your recycling pile: the bar code. Having humbly begun life as the Universal Product Codes found in your grocery store since the seventies, the bar code has since matured into the fastest, cheapest, and most ubiquitous method to convert a package from an inert box into a bundle of bits parsable by a computer. It is the electronic foundation of any warehouse that expects to handle a fair bit of volume. I saw scanners in action the next morning down the highway in the cavernous home of Zappos.com, and I kept seeing them until I was halfway around the world in the electronics factories of Shenzhen. But FedEx reinvented them, UPS helped perfect them, and here the latter was pushing the technology to its practical limit.

Workers unloading cans have only two tasks: place each package on the proper belt, and place it label-side up. It’s actually harder to fix a mistake in the second case than the first, as the Worldport’s computers are able to re-sort a box traveling on the wrong belt by themselves. Flipping the box demands human intervention, however, as the software is helpless until it can see the label. Every package entering the sort passes under a camera and infrared sensor capable of reading characters and correctly estimating dimensions and weight. In the future, even that won’t be necessary once radio frequency identification chips are embedded in their sides, broadcasting the vital signs of what’s within. For now, these RFID tags still cost more money than they save, and until that flips around, any labels missing a key piece of information—a scrawled digit in the zip code, perhaps—have their pictures flashed to a room full of PCs where human operators are required to fill in the blanks.

At two in the morning, it is typically filled with college-age men and women slumped in silence, iPod earbuds firmly in place, clicking and dragging over and over as they zoom in to see what’s the matter. They have thirty seconds to key in whatever is necessary, as the parcels have never stopped moving on the belts. If they blow the deadline, it’s rerouted to the “Exceptions Area,” where it will literally become someone else’s problem.

I could see all of this from a perch on the top floor, after picking my way through the thickets of columns and struts supporting just a few of the seventeen thousand belts coiled inside the hub. Traversing it while the sort is in progress is like roaming through the trestles of an antique wooden roller coaster, except that the intermittent bursts of screams and motion are replaced with a waterfall of white noise.

At the center of the sort is an abyss cleaving a cross section of its many levels straight down to the bottom. From here, you can take in the entire lattice at a glance: a three-story matrix of belt loops and chutes that runs sixteen belts across and is sixteen levels deep. Each belt, in turn, has 364 positions for packages, easily producing more combinatorial multiplicities for a given package than UPS has worldwide outposts. At any moment, a package will pause just long enough for “hockey pucks” of thick black rubber to emerge from one side of the belt and knock it down a long loop on the other. The timing and force of the blow are the product of that first infrared scan—the tracking number determines which sequence of belts and loops it will travel down to the planes, while the dimensional and weight data decide how hard the pucks will strike it.

The physical structure of the sort mirrors the logic embedded in the Worldport’s silicon, an endless string of if . . . then decisions that methodically moves parcels to their proper can or sack, processed faster than my or any other brain could manage. None of this would be possible without the billions spent on technology. That pays for not only tracking- and-tracing packages but also the GPS transceivers mounted in every aircraft, package car, and eighteen-wheeler, along with the systems that drive the hubs, the phone-book-size PDAs their drivers carry, and many experiments. UPS is test-driving what the FAA hopes will be the next generation of air traffic control, while its drivers are assigned routes daily by arcane algorithms that minimize their left turns, thus saving twenty-eight million miles a year and roughly three million gallons of fuel across its trucking fleet. Another program, named VOLCANO (short for volume, location, and aircraft network optimizer), simultaneously solves for the best flight plans six months out, the best mix of aircraft and equipment ten years out, and how to tackle the perennial Christmas rush the next time around.

The majority of this software resides within the Worldport itself, making twice as many calculations in an hour as the New York Stock Exchange does in a heavy day of trading. UPS is justifiably proud of the machine intelligence now embedded in every belt, puck, and package, which corresponds with its desire to strip as much human intelligence as possible out of the hub, in the name of efficiency. The company’s term for it is “de-skilling,” a tradition that dates back to Henry Ford’s first assembly lines for the Model T. The difference now is that there is a greater fortune to be made in moving goods than in making them.

It also means that while UPS employs ten-thousand people nightly in the sort, most are part-time. FedEx, with fifteen thousand in Memphis and thousands more scattered across its domestic hubs, pays the same, and not even the offers of generous benefits and free tuition hide the fact that what they are looking for is a pool of loyal but unskilled labor.

UPS has so thoroughly de-skilled the Worldport that even desert nomads could work there now, and they do. Several hundred members of Somalia’s Bantu tribe have resettled in Louisville in recent years, working mostly in and around the hub. They’re part of a larger influx of immigrants recruited to meet the needs of the companies drawn here. The Bantu’s lack of English (or any form of written language) hasn’t deterred UPS from hiring them.

The Bantu are busy loading cans back onto planes when I emerge from the hub a little before 3:00 a.m. It’s late, and flight dispatchers are already clearing the decks, ordering MD-11s and other West Coast-bound heavies to take off in tandem to the north. Climbing sharply, they soon vanish and take their place among the stars.

Excerpted from Aerotropolis: The Way We’ll Live Next by John D. Kasarda and Greg Lindsay, published in March 2011 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Copyright © 2011 by John D. Kasarda and Greg Lindsay. All rights reserved.

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