Overnight Shipping: have you ever wondered how that works. How could major shipping companies carry overnight packages to most cities in the world? Let’s look at how that works.
Overnight shipping is what this article is about, brought to you by Squarespace. Build your website for 10% off at Squarespace.com/Wendover. Overnight shipping is an absolute masterpiece of logistics that happens every single night. It may not be cheap, but you can get a package shipped from Miami, Florida on a Monday night to Anchorage, Alaska, by AM on Tuesday. In fact, you can even ship a package, for example, from Edinburgh, Scotland on a Tuesday and have the package arrive in Anchorage, Alaska by 9 am on Wednesday. The speed and efficiency of these worldwide delivery networks are mind-blowing and it all happens while we sleep.
How Overnight Shipping Works: The burden is on the three major courier companies
The three major consumer courier companies are FedEx, DHL, and UPS and each is as impressive as the last. FedEx has more planes than Emirates, Etihad, and Qatar Airways combined; DHL delivers to every country in the world including North Korea, and UPS flies to more than double as many destinations as the largest passenger airline. Each has a global network that allows for lightning fast overnight shipping at relatively low prices. Behind all this speed are enormous air networks that connect the entire world daily. Each of these three operates hundreds of flights nightly, but FedEx is the best example since their operations make them the largest cargo airline in the world. They have 650 planes flying to 400 destinations carrying 6 million packages every single day and the vast majority of these flights operate to or from one of their hub airports.
FedEx’s hub airports are spread out all over the world and serve as sorting points where packages are transferred from one plane to another. They have hubs in Singapore, Guangzhou, Shanghai, Seoul, Osaka, Anchorage, Oakland, Dallas, Indianapolis, Greensboro, Miami, Newark, Toronto, Paris, Cologne, Milan, and Dubai, but the most important hub of all is the one in Memphis, Tennessee because that’s their SuperHub. Memphis is not a huge city—only about 650,000 people live there—but the reason FedEx centers their worldwide operations in this city is because of its location. Memphis is not actually in the geographic center of the US as might make sense, but it is central. You see, only about 200 miles away in Wright County, Missouri is the mean population center of the US. This is the average location of every resident in the US meaning that the FedEx SuperHub in Memphis is the best location to reach the most people in the shortest amount of time. For similar reasons, UPS has their equivalent global hub, Worldport, nearby in Louisville, Kentucky. The scale of FedEx and UPS’ operations in these relatively small cities is staggering. This is the size of the commercial terminal at Memphis Airport while this is the size of FedEx’s Superhub.
How Overnight Shipping Works: a closer look at FedEx
The difference at Louisville airport is even more pronounced where this is the commercial terminal and this is UPS’ world port. You can’t even fly to the west coast non-stop on a commercial airline from Louisville and yet UPS flies from this small city to five different continents. FedEx’s operations in Memphis, meanwhile, make this airport the second busiest cargo airport in the world above those of enormous cities like Tokyo, Paris, Dubai, Shanghai, and falling short only to Hong Kong. How the FedEx superhub really works is that every night, about 150 planes fly in from all around the world between the hours of 10 pm and 1 am. Immediately upon arrival, the planes are unloaded and their packages are put into the hub’s automated sorting system. Within only 15 minutes, each package arrives at a staging area for its next flight where it’s loaded into containers.
Planes, therefore, can start taking off again at 2 am and continue to until 4 am which means that everywhere in the US can have a FedEx plane arriving by 6 am, but there are some destinations that don’t ship enough packages to need a non-stop flight to Memphis. To get to small towns fast, FedEx runs flights in small propeller aircraft from the destinations of their larger jets. Presque Isle, Maine, for example, is far too small of a town at about 10,000 residents to fill a full-size plane so, every morning, once the larger planes from Memphis arrive in Manchester, New Hampshire and Portland, Maine, packages bound for Presque Isle are sorted into smaller prop planes that continue north.
With this system, even small towns like Presque Isle get their packages by 9 am as everyone spoke in the system essentially functions as a mini-hub. Packages are transferred from planes to smaller planes, to trucks to reach their destination as fast as possible. Now, it’s important to note that not every FedEx package runs through Memphis. That would be incredibly inefficient if a customer wanted to, for example, ship a package from Phoenix, Arizona to Seattle, Washington. While only 1,100 miles separate Seattle from Phoenix, a routing through Memphis would total over 3,000 miles and six hours in flight. The package would still make it overnight, but FedEx would be wasting fuel carrying that package an extra 1,900 miles, so that’s why they have secondary hubs. In this case, FedEx’s Oakland hub has flights to both Phoenix and Seattle so the package would take a relatively efficient 1,300-mile routing.
Memphis essentially serves as the backup hub in case there’s not a more efficient routing. The secondary hubs, such as Oakland, in general, have flights to destinations that are already served by flights to Memphis, but the destinations from Oakland are high demand destinations that will ship enough packages solely to the west coast to fill entire planes to Oakland. Some destinations, such as Albuquerque, New Mexico, ship enough packages to fill entire planes to Memphis, but not enough to fill flights to Oakland with west coast bound packages so a package shipped from here to the west coast would likely take a rather inefficient routing backtracking to Memphis. But FedEx’s most ingenious hub is here in Anchorage, Alaska. Anchorage, with fewer than 300,000 residents, is home to the fourth busiest cargo airport in the world. This is, once again, thanks to geography. If you draw a straight line from FedEx’s Memphis hub to the one in Osaka, taking into account earth’s curvature, it goes directly over Anchorage, Alaska.
This airport is just the perfect stop-over point for flights from the US to Asia. Now, dozens of cargo airlines operate in Anchorage but most of them just use the airport as a refueling and crew swap spot. Modern airplanes can fly non-stop from the contiguous United States to Asia, but doing so requires taking more fuel which requires taking less cargo. It’s just cheaper to stop in Anchorage, but FedEx and UPS use the stop for something else—sorting. If FedEx wanted to maintain current shipping times without the Anchorage hub, they would likely have to run non-stop flights from each of their Asian hubs to each of their American hubs, but they just don’t have the demand to fill this many planes.
Instead, they run flights from their Asian hubs to Anchorage then flights from Anchorage many of their American hubs. While stopped in Anchorage, packages from Asia are processed through customs and sorted to be put on the plane bound closest to their destination. This helps cuts down on shipping time and cost. Shipping is an incredibly price-sensitive business. These courier companies rely on enormous contracts with retailers and when some of these retailers are overnight shipping millions of packages per day, every cent matters. In a lot of ways, however, the express overnight shipping model is inherently expensive largely because of how couriers use their most expensive assets—planes. So much is centered around those few sorting hours at the big hubs so FedEx’s planes all have to wait around to arrive at the exact right moment. Some FedEx hubs, such as Memphis, do sort packages during the day, but the overwhelming majority of their business happens overnight. FedEx’s flight from Memphis to Oklahoma City, for example, leaves at 4 am and arrives at 5:20 am, but then the plane waits around until 10:10 pm to fly back to Memphis.
That’s over 17 hours sitting in Oklahoma City and, on that route, the plane is only flying for about two hours per day. Meanwhile, commercial airlines regularly fly their planes for more than 12 hours per day meaning they have six times higher aircraft utilization. FedEx would never be profitable if they bought all new multi-hundred million dollar aircraft to use for mere hours per day, so they don’t. Overwhelmingly, FedEx and other cargo airlines use old aircraft at the end of their lives. You’ll almost never see Airbus a300’s flying for passenger airlines anymore, yet FedEx, UPS, and DHL collectively own hundreds of them because they’re cheap.
They didn’t spend much purchasing these aircraft, so they don’t have to worry about using them enough to offset their cost. UPS does have some brand new 747-800 aircraft, which are highly efficient, but they specifically schedule these planes on their longest routes so that they can recuperate their high purchase price through lower fuel costs. With older aircraft, fuel costs might be higher since the planes are less efficient, but overall it’s worth it since it allows FedEx to profitably leave their planes sitting for all but a few hours each day.
Some passenger airlines, such as Allegiant Airlines in the US, use the same strategy purchasing cheaper planes to allow them to fly fewer hours per day profitably and its now a tested and proven business strategy. Express Overnight Shipping is one of those businesses that require enormous networks to make work which is why you don’t see small shipping companies. It’s almost impossible to get started in this business unless, of course, you can make your own demand. Amazon, which ships more than a million packages per day, is getting into the delivery business. They’ve established a fleet of 32 aircraft and are building out their logistics network.
When Overnight Shipping so many packages, Amazon is operating at a scale where they can profit by taking the shipping companies out of the equation. FedEx, UPS, and DHL, meanwhile, are continuously focusing on further increasing the efficiency of their networks since in this business more than any, time is money. As you may have noticed, Wendover Productions has a new logo and with that, I’ve redesigned the website with Squarespace. To be honest, I hadn’t used the website builder for a while but this process reminded me of why I’m such a fan of Squarespace. It was super simple to completely overhaul the site and, in my opinion, it looks great. I didn’t have any issues, but if you ever do they have award-winning 24/7 customer support that I have used in the past and can vouch for. If you run a business, a youtube channel, a podcast, or anything else, you want to have a professional web presence like I do with my site since that’s how people find you, and you can get started building your website with Squarespace for 10% off at squarespace.com/wendover.
Thank you for reading: How Overnight Shipping Works: FedEx, UPS, USPS service the whole world, how is that possible
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