(Bloomberg) -- Just after midnight on a freezing Tennessee night, the sky is filled with a moving constellation of jets making their final approaches to FedEx Corp.’s exclusive runways at the Memphis airport.
Every seat in the control room is filled. The unstoppable sweep of the minute hand around the clock pushes the shipper and its rival United Parcel Service Inc. toward an immovable deadline -- Dec. 25.
On a screen as large as a sports arena’s jumbotron, a team of dispatchers and meteorologists watches planes crossing a global map in real-time. Even without a major storm in Christmas week, the busiest time of year for shippers, they must stay ahead of everything from California wildfires to Indonesian volcanoes to ensure packages land on your doorstep in time for the holiday.
“Weather impacts us every day, everywhere, in some form,” said Kory Gempler, manager of FedEx’s 15-member meteorology department, one of the largest in the business. “If we get snow and ice here, and we have to de-ice 140 aircraft that are supposed to take off in two hours, that’s a challenge.”
FedEx Chief Executive Officer Fred Smith told analysts this week the company was on track for a record season of deliveries this season. Between them, UPS and FedEx will deliver an estimated 1.1 billion holiday packages. An error predicting wandering storms, wild winds or thick fog can trigger a ripple of delays, costing them millions.
FedEx and UPS declined to specify how much they spend on weather forecasting; the costs are folded into broader operation budgets.
While the week has been mild across much of the eastern U.S., winter storm warnings and advisories have spread from the West to the Great Lakes as the first official day of winter kicks off Thursday. Snow is forecast for Chicago Friday.
A botched snow forecast gave birth to the UPS weather desk, according to company spokesman Jim Mayer. In January 1994, local forecasters said 2 to 4 inches (5 to 10 centimeters) of snow would fall in Louisville, Kentucky. A company meteorologist who was teaching weather basics to pilots instead warned that they should be ready for as much as 16 inches, which was closer to the total.
“At that point we knew we had to have our own dedicated meteorology function,” Mayer said. UPS now has five meteorologists on staff.
Winter storms aren’t the only things that cause delays. A big challenge this week has been fog across the U.S. South, a complicating factor when different airports have varying rules about how much visibility is required to land, said Randy Baker, a UPS meteorologist.
In addition, the companies have been contending with the same high Santa Ana winds that have been feeding Southern California wildfires.
“Aircraft manufacturers at Boeing and Airbus have said you should not operate these aircraft with those big cargo doors open with winds in excess of 40 to 45 miles-per-hour,” FedEx’s Gempler said. Both FedEx and UPS ran into trouble at the Ontario airport east of Los Angeles, as steady winds reached tropical-storm strength and gusts were even stronger.
Just as critical as warning crews on the ground that winds were going to buffet their operations was letting them know when the gusts would ease, so they could get back to work.
“One of the most important things for your weather forecast is to do a good job forecasting the tail end,” Bruce Carmichael, an aviation researcher at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado. “When can you start your recovery? How quickly can you begin to move stuff again? You have to plan ahead for getting that done.”
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