All UPS roads lead to Louisville Hub: Almost every package shipped anywhere in the world via United Parcel Service is routed through the booming Kentucky facility.

Sun Journal

October 31, 1998|By Marego Athans | Marego Athans,SUN STAFF

LOUISVILLE, KY. — The headline on Sun Journal in yesterday's editions mischaracterized the volume of packages that comes through United Parcel Service's Louisville, Ky., hub. It handles about two-thirds of the company's express packages -- overnight and second-day delivery -- worldwide.

The Sun regrets the errors.

LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- As the news anchors say good night and the lights go out in this horse racing hub along the Ohio River, a city within a city is just gearing up for its own rush hour, one that lasts through the night.

In the wee hours, Louisville -- home to the Kentucky Derby, fine bourbon and an unrivaled obsession with college basketball -- becomes ground zero for most of the express packages shipped anywhere in the world via the United Parcel Service.

FOR THE RECORD - CORRECTION

Your grandma's cookies. Your pet store's tropical fish. Your new computer monitor. Anything that starts or ends its journey on that boxy brown truck.

A half-million packages a night roar in on a jet and land here in the middle of the night, then get unloaded, sorted, reloaded and sent back up into the night sky within four or five hours.

The 317-acre airport and warehouse take on the pace of a shopping mall at Christmastime, jumping with fuel trucks, crew vans, loaders and yellow tugs pulling caravans of cargo, all on their way to or from a brown-and-white striped jet.

"It's like ants at a picnic," says communications manager Mark Dickens. "When planes land and dock, the ants converge and they take the hamburgers and cupcakes back to the ant hills. There's a great sense of urgency."

The numbers alone tell the story: 4,000 workers -- who park in a lot that's so big you could get a different spot every day for 18 years -- show up for the overnight shift to handle the 80 planes that come through nightly.

Each sorter handles 14 packages a minute, up to 23 at crunch time -- altogether, 166,000 packages an hour. They have to memorize 49 numerical ranges covering the ZIP code map of the world.

On Friday nights, add one more task: five cargo jets -- giant empty shells -- are converted to cozy passenger planes for a new weekend charter service that flies tourist groups to the tropics.

Within three hours, workers install overhead bins, seats and rugs, transforming the freighters' interiors into pretty blue cabins.

Out on the tarmac just after midnight one recent night, dozens of vehicles hurry about like mechanical elves readying Santa's sled on Christmas Eve.

Inside the huge open warehouse where packages are sorted, boxes zip along on a labyrinth of conveyor belts -- in straight lines, around roller-coaster curves, up ramps and down slides.

Most packages are processed by humans -- people such as Brian Rose, 28, and his sorting crew of young, jeans-clad part-time workers. At 2: 20 a.m., peak time, the crew stands in a line, flanked by a mounting pile of packages and a row of conveyor belts.

With body language that spells "deadline," the workers lift a package, glance at the ZIP code and decide which of nine color-coded conveyor belts it belongs on. A box going to Dead Horse, Alaska, (population 26) goes on the brown belt, which handles ZIPs in six ranges, such as 300-319, 677-679 and 995-999.

Packages destined for Tulsa, Okla., go on the blue belt; New York City's on the gold; and so on.

Rose, an energetic sort who seems to enjoy the hustle, claims that his crew misdirects only one package for every 150 sorted, and those typically are caught in the next round of sorting.

"It's almost foolproof," he says, shouting above the hum and clang of machinery. "It's really important when we get a ZIP code up here we get it right."

In another part of the building, tests are conducted on a computerized sorting system that will eventually replace the manual sort.

Workers wearing headphones glance at a label and speak the ZIP code and city into a microphone. The machine spits out a patterned sticker. Cameras read the sticker as the package moves along the belt and direct it to the proper route.

Recently, the difficulty of finding workers for the overnight shift forced UPS to consider moving much of the hub to another state, threatening a major economic crisis for Kentucky, where UPS is the largest private employer and has drawn a number of spinoff businesses to Louisville.

UPS is the worldwide leader in combined ground and air freight, delivering 12 million packages a day. Federal Express leads the industry in "express" delivery -- overnight or two-day service -- with 3 million packages a day. UPS is second in that arena, with 1.8 million packages.

So alarm bells rang as word reached Kentucky's government and business leaders that Louisville's work force wouldn't support the company's rapid growth and a $860 million expansion of the hub.

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