Do you ever ship something to a far-off place and wonder how it gets where it's going? You know your box or bag gets put with others, stuffed into a truck or plane, and winds up across the country. But what happens in between is nothing short of amazing. Most of the magic happens in a city better known for music and the home of the King of Rock and Roll. These days, Memphis is the domain of the king of the shipping business: FedEx.
It could be any big airport anywhere. A few planes, a little late night activity. But things are about to change. After midnight, Memphis International is the busiest airport in the world. Plane after plane, 160 on your typical night, even on busy nights around the holidays.
The Memphis hub is a small city at night, with about 9,000 people manning 174 aircraft gates, many more than your typical airport. They have minutes to move in, and keep those packages moving. They have a lot of ground to cover. The Memphis hub is massive--about 400 acres, nearly five miles around. The packages cover a lot of that ground each night, and so do the people.
The hoists and tugs do the heavy lifting, but it takes human power too. The first packages of literally hundreds of thousands still to come and go in just a few hours. FedEx crews don't waste a second. They'll handle 1.7 million packages on an average night. Even more between now and Christmas.
The workers on the ground and their tugs line up just like the planes in the sky above them, waiting to unload as quickly as possible. The packages are loaded up into huge cans, loaded on dollies, and put into a train, where they'll be taken to a center to be divided up for their next stop. It's a constant flow, a dizzying pace, a synchronized ballet of bags and boxes and tubes.
The tugs go back for more, constantly feeding the conveyor belts to beat the clock. There are 300 miles of conveyor belts. Next stop, the entrance to the matrix. Everything comes in on huge belts, as workers watch the sorting. They see an open spot, push a button, and the packages tumble down a steel slide for more sorting.
In the matrix, those FedEx labels with the barcodes are crucial. All sorts of information on the package can be read in the bar code: where it's from, where it's going, and most important, where it is right now. They also measure each box.
What happens next is amazing. The packages fly down a belt while a massive computer system calculates all the information. Think of it as a big interstate system, with 84 main highways. The computer sends the word down the line that your package is coming. When it gets to the right exit, a diverter, sort of a metal push broom, gives it a shove to the right exit to get to your house. Even better than that, the computer tells the diverter how long your package is, so when it shoves, it shoves it right near the center, most likely the strongest part of the box.
Here's where they wind up next, yet another conveyor belt, and more sorting. The small signs point the way to the right cans, and people like Hillary Pierre make sure they get where they're going.
"They're going to Savannah," she says. "My flight goes to Savannah, my flight goes to Hilton Head, I also do postal."
"Doing postal" is one of those little FedEx things you don't think about. If you go to the post office, that is the United States Post Office, and pay to send something overnight, guess who they send it to? FedEx.