Inside Louisville’s UPS Worldport

Aerosavvy - UPS Worldport
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!

Aerosavvy - UPS WorldportAlthough I regularly fly in and out of Louisville, UPS pilots don’t often get the chance to see how things work behind the scenes.

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.


AeroSavvy Subscription

AeroSavvy - UPS Worldport

Louisville, Kentucky’s passenger terminal (3.3 million passengers/year) looks tiny next to UPS Worldport.

 

Aerosavvy - UPS WorldportThe 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

Tilt trays in the “smalls” sort.  Photo: UPS Airlines

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. 🙁

AeroSavvy - Worldport Tour   AeroSavvy - Worldport Tour

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?

Aerosavvy - UPS Worldport

A UPS 767 parked on Worldport’s Ramp 9

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.

Self-Parking Docks

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.

Aerosavvy - UPS Worldport

UPS Worldport Docks via Twitter: @UPSAirlines

Aerosavvy - UPS Worldport

UPS Worldport via Twitter: @UPSAirlines

 

AeroSavvy - Worldport tourParking 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.

Aerosavvy - UPS Worldport  Aerosavvy - UPS Worldport

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.

Worldport Trivia*
Aerosavvy - UPS Worldport

  • 5.2 million sq ft (90 football fields)
  • 7.2 miles around perimeter
  • 416,000 packages per hour
  • 33,496 conveyors
  • 4 Million packages/day in December
  • 13 min avg sort time for a package
  • 125 aircraft parking spots
  • 70 “self park” aircraft docks
  • 300 flights arrive/depart daily
  • Flights every day of the week
  • World’s largest automated package handling facility

* Data obtained from UPS

 

Check out this time lapse video produced by UPS Airlines for an overview of UPS Worldport operations (and a fun ride on a conveyor):

 

Aerosavvy - UPS WorldportWant to learn more about UPS Worldport?

Special thanks to Jim Mayer, UPS Airlines Public Relations Manager for providing details and checking my work! (Twitter: @UPSAirlines).



AeroSavvy is written by Ken Hoke. Since 1984, Ken has loitered the skies in many vehicles, most notably the classic Douglas DC-8. He currently frustrates air traffic controllers in the US, Asia, and Europe as a Boeing 767 captain for a package express airline.
Ken can be reached here or any of these fine social media outlets:   

21 thoughts on “Inside Louisville’s UPS Worldport

  1. Ron Rapp

    Fascinating. You gave the high numbers, but i’m curious what the low number is. I’m assuming it’s during the middle of the day… But how many packages per hour are they sorting at that time? The delta between the two would be interesting.

    Reply
    1. Ken H. Post author

      Hi Ron, great question.

      It’s like a floodgate. If you walk into Worldport at 5pm, after the afternoon sort, the place is dead. Conveyors are stopped, no packages in sight.

      When the Next Day Air flights start arriving in the evening, the place goes crazy. Airplanes are arriving once a minute. A new aircraft begins unloading once every minute.

      So, the system goes from almost zero to 115 packages/second in a matter of minutes. This goes on for about 4 hours.

      By 4:30am or so, the last flights are loaded and ready for departure. Most of Worldport goes back to sleep until mid-morning when the Second-Day Air flights begin to arrive.

      Reply
  2. deckape2

    very interesting and this reminds me of the Frog system Denver tried to use when it opened up the New International Airport back in the 90’s using the UPS system, it didnt work for luggage..

    Reply
    1. Ken H. Post author

      I asked UPS Public Relations Manager, Jim Mayer, about the accuracy of the automated sorting system at Worldport. Here’s his response:

      UPS’ automated sorting system is incredibly accurate. Every night we successfully sort about 1.2 million packages during a four-hour sort window. The technology, which UPS developed jointly with a vendor, is so good that we are now installing it at ground hubs around the country, automating those sort systems and increasing efficiency.

      Reply
  3. Justin

    fascinating article.
    What is the average wait time during push back into the alley? Can they speed that process up as well?

    Reply
    1. Ken H. Post author

      Hi Justin,

      We usually start our pushback within minutes of signing the paperwork and closing the door. There are occasional delays due to congestion in the alley, but typically we close the door, run our before start checklist, say hello to the maintenance tech on the headset, and begin pushback.

      Reply
    1. Ken H. Post author

      Hi Eduardo,

      The two red lights on the left are emergency stop lights. When an aircraft is parking, a ground crew member holds a light switch. If there is any problem, he hits the switch and illuminates the lights so the pilot knows to stop.

      The vertical red & green bars on the right help with alignment before we can see the nose wheel in the mirror. When the green bar is directly in front of the red bar, the aircraft is exactly on the yellow taxi line.

      Thanks for asking!
      Ken

      Reply
      1. Eduardo Peres

        Thanks for the answer!

        Don’t get me wrong, technlogy is great, but I hope they’ll not replace marshallers everywhere that way. I still love the thrill of guiding a plane towards me 🙂

        Reply
        1. Ken H. Post author

          I don’t think marshallers are going away soon. Louisville still has over 50 parking spots that require marshaling. And UPS has some of the best in the business. An experienced marshaller can provide equal or better guidance than an automated system. Also, automation comes with cost and there is still a need for safety monitors. So, labor savings is minimum to none.

  4. Vihanga Sandaru Hettiarachchi

    Captain,

    Interesting article, I’ve got some questions
    Is this Airport Constructed and fully owned by UPS?
    Is this Airport open for other civil air traffic or just limited to UPS aircrafts?

    I’ve seen a documentary about UPS world port produced by NatGeo or Discovery

    Reply
    1. Ken H. Post author

      Great question!
      Louisville International Airport (KSDF) is a public and military use airport. The SDF terminal handles 3.3 million passengers/year. Southwest and Delta airlines fly about half of those passengers. Other airlines include PSA, Republic, and Trans States. SDF is also home to the Kentucky Air National Guard’s 123rd Airlift Wing. The Guard operates C-130 transports.

      KSDF is a very busy place!

      Ken

      Reply
  5. Amanda B

    As for the other 55 parking spaces available there is a pretty great group of marshallers who safely position planes in and out every day (and night!). Marshalling is a 24/7 operation that often requires mandatory holidays and overtime. With a pretty great safety record, we know that (unlike the hub) one mistake can cost us our jobs.

    Reply
    1. Ken H. Post author

      Hi Amanda,

      I couldn’t agree more!! Although my article highlights the system that allows pilots to self-navigate to the final parking position, there are still hundreds of amazing, highly trained ground operations folks that really make it all happen. Pilots definitely don’t just land and wander into the parking lot by themselves. Even with the “self-park” docks there are several key people (like wing walkers) required as the aircraft taxis into position. 24 hours a day, these people keep the pilots from bending metal in the close confines of the ramp. 🙂

      Without a doubt, Louisville has some of the most experienced, best marshallers anywhere on the planet. (I should actually do an article on you guys!)

      Thanks for reading!
      Ken

      Reply
  6. Mahesh

    Ken,
    This was fascinating. Why don’t airlines use the ‘ridiculously simple’ mirror-based self parking system at passenger terminals to save on labor cost? Is there a reason that the system would not work for people carrying planes and docks as opposed to package carrying facilities?
    Mahesh

    Reply
    1. Ken H. Post author

      Hi Mahesh,

      Some airline terminals do use similar technology. There are a few different guidance systems out there. Although the pilot guides the plane to the final position without human guidance, ground personnel are still necessary to monitor wingtip clearance and ground operations as the aircraft parks. Labor cost savings is probably very little (maybe none). In the absence of a really good marshaller, a guidance system makes it easier for the flight crew to park the jet.

      Reply
  7. Marie mcintyre

    I understand what you’re saying about this “self park” concept but you still always have to have marshallers/ wing walkers when bringing in the plane. None of the planes come in by themselves. I’m not saying it couldn’t be possible but we’re always there to stop them on the right line.or to make sure the wings don’t hit /or someone driving down the ramp doesn’t hit the plane either.

    Reply
    1. Ken H. Post author

      Hi Marie,
      I couldn’t agree more! Although my article highlights the system that allows pilots to self-navigate to the final parking position, there are still hundreds of amazing, highly trained ground operations folks that are necessary to make it all happen. Pilots definitely don’t just land and wander into the parking lot by themselves. Even when using the “self-park” docks, there is a team of people watching for conflicts and problems as the aircraft taxis into position. 24 hours a day, these people keep the pilots from bending metal in the close confines of the ramp (thank you! 🙂).

      Reply
    1. Ken H. Post author

      Funny you should ask…
      A couple years ago, I overshot the 767 line by a couple of inches. I remember having a good excuse at the time, but now it escapes me. 🙂
      They hooked up the tug and pushed us back onto the line.

      Reply
      1. John Cohen

        Thanks Ken just the answer I was waiting for. I’m not a flyer but like to know how things work. I worked for a railroad in Australia for 44 years and try to understand how others work. I really enjoy your posts.

        Reply

Don't just sit there... Say something!