Millions of Americans will wait until the last minute to send holiday gifts to far-flung locales, and many will lean on FedEx to make it happen in a hurry. There's a data-based story behind why the brand has become a dependable godsend for gift-givers during a season that's normally more about snow than sunshine.
In 1986, FedEx, then known as Federal Express, decided that its burgeoning overnight delivery business needed its own weather-forecasting system. So an in-house meteorological division, which endures to this day, was set up.
Part of FedEx's Global Operations Control Center, or GOCC, in Memphis, Tenn., where the brand is headquartered, the meteorological team consists of 15 people who work 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. In the coming weeks, with holidays going full blast, they'll work side-by-side with the dispatchers to get planes off the often-wintry runways whenever possible.
"Safety is priority No. 1 for our team members out there," said Kory Gempler, FedEx's manager of meteorological services. "But we are a little different from the airlines. Obviously, we are not carrying people outside of the pilots."
Gempler's team relies on a color-coded system called War Board that's synced with a satellite-based weather feed from NOAA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. But FedEx also gets information from the National Weather Service and data, such as stats about lightning, from smaller data providers around the world. The War Board also includes forecasts of specific cloud heights, runway visibility, wind and precipitation—these reports are produced two or three times a day for 45 domestic destinations.
"Our system allows us to customize weather graphics that we can look at, develop and implement in our intranet for the whole team to see," Gempler said.
All told, GOCC oversees a fleet of 670 airplanes. So if you celebrate Christmas, in particular, and you see gifts from around the country underneath your tree, you might want to sing the praises of Boeing 757s and 777s instead of Dancer and Prancer.
"This evening," Gempler explained on Nov. 23, "there will be more than 160 aircraft landing in [Memphis] between 10 p.m. and 1 a.m. Once they get here, they will be offloaded, and then freight will be loaded back on. And then about 140 of those will take off between 2 a.m. and 4:30 a.m. Then the morning, we'll start to do it all over again, including an afternoon launch."
Hey, Santa, you might want to start outsourcing part of that gig you got.