Week 7: In the Matrix at the FedEx World Hub [Score +10]
My brother and I had limited TV entertainment options when we were kids. Our choices were restricted first by my parents' choice to get all our programming via antenna (so visiting friends' houses who had cable TV felt like living dangerously and required creative truth-telling about our activities when we got home). Our choices were restricted second by those same parents' rules about what was appropriate and what was not for an impressionable young mind.
Appropriate: Mister Rogers' Neighborhood.
Not appropriate: Mighty Morphin Power Rangers.
Appropriate: Reading Rainbow.
Not appropriate: The Simpsons.
Can you see a pattern forming here? Appropriate: PBS.
I harbor no hostility for these restrictions now (the tastes I cultivated at 6 years old haven’t changed much, in many respects) and have great fondness for all the shows I got to watch. They did make an impression on my impressionable mind, and I credit many of these great PBS shows for helping to nurture my curious nature and voracious reading habits that continue now in adulthood.
One of the pleasures I've come to appreciate now that always makes me think of Mister Rogers when I get to do it: Factory tours. Behind-the-scenes, first-person views of how things are made and how companies operate. I'll use “factory” in a broad-reaching sense here to include complex operations that we take for granted in everyday life. Not only do I find this peek at the magic interesting, but I think it gives me a better appreciation for what goes into the products and services I, as a consumer, consume.
A perfect example of a complex, highly choreographed operation that keeps our economy running smoothly is the FedEx World Hub at the Memphis International Airport. I was lucky enough to score a seat on a tour of the Hub last week. Even though this tour didn't start until 10:30 p.m. on a Monday night (it kept me up waaaaaayyyy past my bedtime!), I jumped at the chance to see behind the scenes.
[Note: I was only allowed to take photos up to a certain point early in the tour, so be sure to watch the video I've included below or just use your imagination. :) ]
Just how big is the operation at FedEx's main hub? Between 10:00 p.m. and 4:00 a.m. on any given night, they make the Memphis airport the busiest one in the country. 150 planes land and take off during that six-hour period of time, which averages out to about one plane every 90 seconds. If you stand outdoors anywhere near the airport during this time, you can see the planes’ lights lined up in the sky as they make their approach.
The Memphis International Airport, overall, is not a big one by most standards—it actually only has 583 commercial flights per week. FedEx accounts for 75% of its air traffic and occupies 880 acres of the airport's total 5,000.
We started our tour at the brand-new Experience Center, where soft, colorful lights are tastefully hidden from view and illuminate the walls, and the air still smells like new carpet. In an adjacent building, among many other things, FedEx houses flight simulators for pilot training. The simulators are larger than your average SUV and are elevated at least 10 feet off the ground on hydraulic arms that replicate the motions a plane will take during flight as well as potential issues. The simulators look, to me, like a virtual-reality ride you’d find at a Universal Studios theme park.
Oh, and about those issues: each simulator is programmed to be able to replicate more than 300 possible malfunctions. If there’s a switch, a button, or a gauge on that plane, it can malfunction mid-flight, and having these in the simulator understandably helps the pilots train for such an event.
The company has 7,000 hourly employees working every night, and when you add salaried workers, the number increases to around 11,000. Among the 11,000 are 15 dedicated meteorologists who track weather and other events that can impact flight patterns around the globe. Active volcanoes, whose ash poses a serious risk to nearby air travel, are monitored on the global map, as well, as are no-fly zones over areas of conflict.
Most of the employees are in the sorting facilities and out on “The Ramp” (airport lingo for the apron area where aircraft are parked, loaded and unloaded, and refueled).
On the Ramp, teams of people are loading and unloading shed-sized containers full of packages and towing them from building to plane and back again. Drivers honk their horns at each intersection, barely coming to a stop if the nearest oncoming vehicle is a safe distance away.
During moments when we exited our bus on the Ramp, our tour guides tried valiantly to keep talking while we observed the action, but without microphones or bullhorns, their words were lost in the roar of jet engines idling, passing, or cruising close overhead.
I felt like a foreign insect who’d been dropped into an active beehive and cautioned that if I stepped out of line, I’d be squashed immediately. I could imagine how it would be overwhelming and intimidating for a new employee afraid of being the bad cog in the wheel.
The sorting magic happens in facilities at the Hub whose operations are separated by package size and weight. Envelopes and small packages go through one area, large items over 75 lbs another, and the greatest quantity of standard-sized packages under 75 lbs go through the Matrix. This video will give you a better sense of this part of the operation than I could describe:
Standing on a platform over the action in the Matrix, watching packages glide past in every direction, was mesmerizing. I noticed brand names on boxes that I recognized, many that I didn’t, and I was increasingly curious about what was inside each one. On this average Monday night, this hive of workers sorted 1.4 million packages destined for desks and doorsteps around the globe.
As planes are retired, FedEx is gradually moving to an all-Boeing fleet. Their largest right now is the Boeing 777, a comparably efficient behemoth that can fly from Memphis to Dubai in one trip. For these long trips, two piloting crews are on board and switch commanding responsibilities mid-flight to relieve the first crew and allow them to sleep.
A single 777 can carry 360,000 pounds of freight on two levels within the plane. On the bottom level, 30 containers that can each hold 1,000 lbs. of cargo are lined up, while on the top level, 30 BIG containers that can each carry 11,000 lbs. line the plane from one end to the other.
Here’s a warm-and-fuzzy fact that I enjoyed: Each plane is named after an employee’s child. Determined by a lottery system, a new name is painted on the nose of a plane when it’s repainted or added to the fleet. The child gets a link to a landing page where they can log on any time and track where “their” plane is in the world.
As the tour progressed, I felt increasingly humbled by the scale of this operation and its importance to the global economy. Those 1.4 million packages that got sorted on Monday night alone weren’t just trinkets from Amazon. They included things like vaccines for hospitals in sub-Saharan Africa; architectural plans for a new school in rural Nicaragua; contracts that will establish new relationships between companies working across national borders; and even divorce papers that will put a final period on the end of a couple’s dream of ‘til death do us part. Who knows? Just think of how global commerce would stumble if FedEx was suddenly incapacitated. I find it a little scary to think about, and it makes me grateful I don’t work in their IT department.
I did manage to stay awake through the entire tour, a relatively easy feat because of how busy, loud, and active the tour was. I fell into bed at 2:00 a.m., set my Do Not Disturb on my phone to last through 9:00 a.m., and drifted off with a new awareness and appreciation for the work of this company. The next time I track a purchase as it makes its way to my doorstep, I’ll be thinking of all the carefully choreographed steps it took on its journey to its final destination.
- Did something outside my routine: +1
- Left the house: +1
- Did something entirely new: +1
- Had a conversation with a stranger of at least 30 seconds: +2
- Had a conversation with a stranger beyond basics (i.e., work, hometown, what’s your dog’s name): +2
- Learned someone’s name: +3