115 and a half packages per second. How does the largest courier sorting plant in the world work?

A cargo Jumbo Jet is approaching the runway. Before this machine stops, another appears in the air above the airport. This time it may be a smaller Boeing 757, Airbus A300 or McDonnell Douglas MD-11. During peak shipping times, these flying monsters land one after another at 60-second intervals. They all have brown tails with the golden UPS logo. This happens at Louisville International Airport, where the American courier giant is based. It is where the largest courier parcel sorting plant in the world is located.

UPS was founded over 100 years ago and in the second half of the 20th century became the global tycoon of courier shipments delivered by air. In 1980, the company moved to Louisville, where Worldport, the world centre for UPS, was established.

The world’s largest spoke hub

Worldport is a spectacular example of freight transport in the Hub and Spoke model. The hub, or centre, is a great transport junction. The spokes are shipping lines, usually airlines, which, in the case of UPS, reach more than 200 countries around the world.

The idea behind this transport model is to minimise costs by simplifying logistic activities: sorting and check-in to destinations take place in one place. There is no need to run many smaller hubs all over the world. Thanks to this, it is possible to reduce labour costs – by automating the sorting plant and concentrating management in the hands of a relatively small management team.

Centralisation also helps to avoid the possibility of an aircraft being loaded below its full capacity. The gaps in the cargo space are filled with parcels of fixed destination selected from the incoming wave of packages. Such well-packed flights are the most profitable. And the parcels are delivered extremely quickly, because with such a mass of parcels, the time of turning around planes is very short.

416,000 shipments per hour

It is easy to calculate that the sorting plant handles 115.5 shipments in one second. This is the throughput of the Worldport sorting facility. It was built on an area equivalent to 80 football fields. The total length of the conveyor belts exceeds 150 miles. More than 20,000 people work in this place every day. However, if the parcels were to be sorted manually,  many more people would have to be employed to deal with the enormous amount of parcels a day. But in Worldport, 99.9% of sorting is done by machines. Only a minimal amount of the entire mass of flowing shipments requires manual handling. This is an unprecedented record.

The location of UPS Worldport is not accidental. Within an hour’s flight from Louisville International Airport you can reach destinations where approximately 75% of the US population live. Within several hours you can reach any place in the world. The UPS fleet of more than 260 aircraft operates 24/7 365 days a year. After the purchase of the Boeing 747-8F aircraft, UPS is now able to fly non-stop for really long distances. The longest non-stop route connects Louisville (Worldport) with Dubai International Airport – it is nearly 12,000 km in one flight.

Worldport is UPS’s largest but not the only shipping hub. There are similar sorting facilities in North America – in Chicago (121,000 packages per hour), Philadelphia (95,000 packages per hour), and Dallas (46,000 packages per hour) and also one in Ontario (67,000 packages per hour). The largest hub outside North America is in Bonn: it has a throughput of ‘only’ 190,000 parcels per hour.