How Will Shipping Companies Deliver a Record Volume of Holiday Packages During Wintry Weather?

With National Retail Federation estimates at nearly $105 billion in online holiday sales this season, delivery companies are tasked with battling the elements and strategizing against Mother Nature to meet their delivery goals.

"We understand the importance people place on their holiday deliveries, whether it's a large technology company with a new line of smartphones, or grandma shipping her cookies. So we go to great lengths to ensure those deliveries make it on time," UPS Airlines Public Relations Spokesperson Mike Mangeot said. "Weather planning is a big part of that."

While this season has been milder in the eastern United States, fog and rain have led to poor visibility and travel weather at times. Meanwhile, major storms have pummeled the Western and Central states with rain, snow and blizzard conditions.

The storm parade will continue in the western and central United States through the middle of next week, unleashing snow, rain and severe weather.

However, inclement weather hasn't slowed the number of shipments as both UPS and FedEx expect to break last year's records.

According to Mangeot, 2015 marks UPS's 108th holiday season, and demonstrates the company's many years of experience with managing adverse weather conditions.

"Our meteorology team is one of the main ways we manage Mother Nature's holiday blues in the Northern Hemisphere," he said. "We have five meteorologists who work around the clock to pre-alert operators of potential weather issues."

Weather data is also a valuable resource to UPS as company network engineers and operations experts manage variables to ensure holiday shipments arrive on time.

"We look at all manner of weather issues, from a large snowstorm that will hit five states to early morning fog that could impact takeoffs at a smaller airfield," he said.

"A great example took place on our busiest pre-Christmas day in 2013. Our regional air hub just outside of Chicago took a direct hit from an ice storm. Our planners knew the storm was coming and were able to divert 29 flights into our main air hub in Louisville, Kentucky. Those express shipments all made service for our customers before Santa's big day."

FedEx also employs their own team of meteorologists, according to FedEx Spokesperson Ashley Allen.

"Our team of meteorologists holds daily weather briefings at the company, which help operations team leaders plan appropriately," Allen said.

"For example, if a big storm is coming, some flights and packages may be rerouted to other airports and areas to avoid delays," Allen said. "The operational forecasters are on duty 24 hours a day, seven days a week - they help with determining everything from how much de-icing fluid a hub should order to informing a pilot on what to expect during flight."

Forecasts of specific cloud heights, visibility, wind and precipitation are produced two to three times a day for 45 domestic destinations and alternates, and the information is updated throughout the day, Allen added.

"The FedEx team of meteorologists is critical when it comes to making important decisions that affect not only when packages will be delivered, but the safety of the 325,000 team members around the world as they battle inclement weather," Allen said.

"Their forecasts can lead to FedEx altering flight schedules into a major hub like Memphis if a major weather disruption to service is foreseen. By diverting freight through one of its other hubs, the impact to the operations [is] minimized."

In addition, FedEx Express has added Enhanced Vision Systems to 250 aircraft, which will greatly improve pilots' ability to land in low visibility conditions and mitigate potential weather delays. The company is the only U.S. carrier with FAA approval to use the technology as low as 100 feet on instrument approaches, according to Allen.

"In 2015, UPS will deliver an unprecedented 630 million packages in the 19 delivery days between Thanksgiving and Christmas," Mangeot said.

"That's a 10 percent increase over last year's record levels. Our busiest day this holiday season will be Tuesday, Dec. 22, when our driver-heroes will deliver 36 million packages. That's double what we process on a typical day."

FedEx has also projected a record number of shipments this year.

"FedEx predicts it will move a record-breaking 317 million shipments between Black Friday and Christmas Eve," Allen said.

This prediction marks a 12.4 percent increase in year-over-year seasonal volume for FedEx.

"The season, which includes one more day than last year, is expected to be bolstered by three volume spikes, including Cyber Monday and the first two Mondays in December, in which we expect to move more than double the average daily volume," Allen added. "On average, we move more than 10 million shipments each business day."

The growing popularity of Cyber Monday, online shopping, and advances in technology is changing the way delivery companies work.

"In terms of eCommerce, it is certainly changing the way we do business," Mangeot said, adding that just a few years ago, business-to-consumer (B2C) shipments were 20 percent of UPS' business, but now represent 45 percent of the total volume.

"To that end, we've added new services to accommodate consumers. UPS My Choice is a web-based service that allows customers to choose when, where and how they receive a shipment. My Choice just reached 20 million subscribers."

For example, if you're getting a new tablet computer delivered, you choose a time when you'll be home to receive it, or you can elect to have it dropped off at a UPS Store for later pickup, Mangeot added.

"We're also rapidly growing a network of non-UPS locations where a customer can pick up or drop off their deliveries. The UPS Access Point network made the jump from Europe to the U.S. this year and currently has 22,000 locations around the world."

According to Allen, Express Domestic parcel revenue grew 5.3 percent driven by both yield and volume growth in addition to one more operating day.

"Volume growth has improved at FedEx Ground and SmartPost due to stronger residential demand, both from new customer growth and also less YOY decline from Amazon's SmartPost shipments," Allen said.