In March 2017, I had the opportunity to take a short tour of the massive UPS Worldport facility in Louisville, Kentucky. Take a look inside this amazing facility and find out where (and how) the airplanes park!
UPS Worldport is truly an amazing place. The facility is 5.2 million square feet, with a perimeter of 7.2 miles making it larger than Minneapolis’ Mall of America.
The interior contains a dizzying array of conveyor belts, sorters, and chutes that connect 377 unload positions to the aircraft docks. Once a package enters the building, it’s sorted quickly (about 13 minutes) and automatically to the proper location to be loaded on its outbound aircraft. Most packages are touched only twice by a human: as they are unloaded, and again when loaded into the outbound aircraft container. The rest is fully automated…
Automated Theme Park Ride
Worldport utilizes 546 “camera tunnels” that scan bar codes and route packages to the correct destination. There are three separate sorting systems depending on package size: smalls, such as letters; regular parcels; and “incompatibles” – really heavy packages and odd-shaped things like car parts. Smalls are sorted using 17,220 tilt trays (on 19 loops). Parcels travel through 155 miles of conveyors. The incompatibles go on “sleds” that travel on 2.7 miles of track. Each package gets a ride worthy of a world-class amusement park.
Yes, of course I was tempted to hop on an incompatibles sled and take a ride. Sadly, I was warned it would negatively impact my continued employment. 🙁
During a sort, the UPS Worldport system processes 115 packages per second. A normal day is about two million packages, but that can more than double in the weeks before Christmas.
Where do I park my airplane?
Outside the sorting facility are parking spaces for 125 aircraft. That’s a lot of parking spaces. Time critical flights utilize Worldport’s 70 “self-parking” docks that are attached to the five Worldport wings.
Louisville’s two parallel runways handle a constant arrival of aircraft each night – about one aircraft each minute during peak arrival times.
Flight crews need to know exactly where to park when they exit the runway to avoid causing a jumbo-size traffic jam. When each inbound aircraft is about 100 miles from Louisville, the crew receives a digital message from the UPS Global Operations Center with an assigned ramp (apron) and parking position.
As the crew exits the runway, they contact Ground Control and inform the controller of the assigned ramp. The controller provides a taxi route for the crew to follow. With an aircraft arriving every minute, it’s wonderful, well orchestrated chaos.
Worldport’s 70 parking docks are similar to gates at a passenger terminal. The plane pulls up to the dock and cargo is unloaded directly into the sorting facility. Thanks to the docks, packages enter the facility within minutes of arrival.
Parking an aircraft at the docks is easy and doesn’t require an aircraft marshaller (the person with the lighted flashlights) to guide the pilot. The “Self-Parking” feature on each dock uses a ridiculously simple and 100% reliable guidance system: a big mirror.
Here’s how it works: As the aircraft turns toward the dock, the captain can see the yellow taxi line and aircraft nose wheel in the mirror. It’s really easy steer the nose wheel on the line using the mirror. Stop marks indicate where the nose wheel needs to stop so loading equipment will be aligned with the cargo door. The stop marks are labeled with specific aircraft types. The labels are printed upside-down and in reverse so they can be read in the mirror. It’s a great system that works day, night, and in crummy weather.
Check out this time lapse video produced by UPS Airlines for an overview of UPS Worldport operations (and a fun ride on a conveyor):
Special thanks to Jim Mayer, UPS Airlines Public Relations Manager for providing details and checking my work! (Twitter: @UPSAirlines).