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.

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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).


  1. 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.

    • 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.

  2. 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..

    • 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.

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

    • 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.

    • 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!

      • 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 🙂

        • 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. 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

    • 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!


  5. 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.

    • 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!

  6. 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?

    • 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.

        • Hi Ralph,

          At UPS in Louisville, aircraft marshaling is not an entry-level position. If you go to, you will usually find a listing for “Warehouse Worker – Package Handler.” That’s where you would start. Once established in that position, you can bid for other job openings as they become available (there are a lot of interesting jobs available).

  7. 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.

    • 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! ?).

    • 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.

      • 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.

  8. I work for Ontario ups air hub an I was loading belly 31 on a flight bound for Louisville air hub an I left my phone in belly31… this sucks any of you know the steps to getting it back

    • Hi Luis,

      I tried responding to the email you provided, but it bounced. Let your supervisors know and have them contact their counterparts in Louisville.


  9. What an amazing system. Thanks for sharing all this. The videos were really interesting to watch. But as a visitor to Louisville who is groggily typing this, I was unnerved at the constant barrage of very loud low flying jets that kept me awake from around midnight, until close to three in the morning. The arriving flight pattern brings them right over the center of town, and you are right, it was about one plane per minute coming in for a landing. I can’t imagine living here and having to deal with that on a nightly basis. I’m surprised I couldn’t find a gazzilion complaint post on social media… Seems more appropriate to have the hub be at an airport that isn’t in the middle of a large urban area. I’m sure the Louisville hub provides a huge amount of jobs for the local citizens. Which is great. But what about the rest of the population?

    • Both UPS and air traffic control try very hard to minimize noise impact. When wind is not a factor, late night arrivals are from the south to avoid downtown. Likewise, early morning departures tend to be toward the south to avoid populated neighborhoods. Jet traffic departing Louisville also use Noise Abatement Departure Procedures to limit impact. Of course, weather sometimes messes up the system.

      From a personal perspective, my family has lived in Louisville most of our lives. It’s a bit like living near railroad tracks. After a while, you don’t notice it. When the winds are blowing an odd direction, my wife and I will sometimes be awakened due to out-of-the-ordinary traffic patterns. We just laugh and say “UPS” then go back to sleep.

      • I can attest to this! I moved down to Louisville about three years ago for school! At first when you are around you hear them everywhere and you notice them but after about 3 months top, I don’t really notice them when I don’t listen for them. I also started working at UPS after my first year down here. I’m a proud 1DA 9/11 ramp worker! Once you start working there plane sounds rarely bother you anymore.

  10. Hello Captain!

    I am an AvGeek-First Class (or I like to think so…) and I just came across your site. Very interesting! I used to write a column in an aviation magazine that basically explained aviation technical things in a way that non-aviation people could understand. Your site does very much the same thing…probably better!

    In the case of the self parking system, it really is no labor savings. Almost all airlines and ground handlers still require a ramp (apron? I won’t say tarmac!) agent to be at the emergency stop button and wing walkers to ensure proper clearance of the aircraft. I have worked at many different airports (SNA, BWI. MIA, FLL, SFO, ORD plus many more) and in some airports they have the traffic light system where the marshaller’ holds the green light button until the aircraft approaches the stop bar, then switches to the yellow light button when the aircraft needs to slow down and finally the red light when the nosewheels are about to touch the stop bar. Still requires a trained marshaller, but without the hand signals.

    A more fancy version uses lasers to ensure the envelope is clear and requires entering the aircraft type and series into a control box. This system still needs to have a human at the e-stop in case of failure. (And fail they do, just check out BA A380 in MIA).

    Interestingly enough, USAir had the ‘low-tech’ self parking mirrors at the new terminal in PIT when it opened but later got rid of them. Also I have worked at a couple of airports where there were self-parking systems installed (years earlier) that were no longer in use.

    Great web site! Keep up the great content!

    • We still need trained marshallers standing by, but self-park systems remove some of the human factors error. Even with standardization, each marshaller is a little different. I’d rather have a mirror and well-marked lines. Self-park systems allow me to park with far more accuracy and not wonder what the marshaller is trying to tell me with non-standard signals.

      The self-park systems at WorldPort are very popular with our pilots.

  11. My son will begin his aeronautics/commercial pilot schooling this fall. We are going on a road trip in May. Are tours available for the public? He would absolutely love to see this. His life goal is to be a UPS pilot. He is currently working at our local airport (Roanoke, VA) for Signature Flight Support loading the UPS plane every night.

  12. Hello!
    I am a student at a university in Vietnam. I am doing a discussion about the factors affecting UPS Worldport of Louisville. Can you tell me about the factors that affect shipping at UPS Worldport?

    • The crews that work inside the facility and outside loading/unloading aircraft can dress comfortably for the weather. Flight crews (pilots) wear uniforms year-round, but can leave the jacket at home during warm weather.

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