Impacts of the December 22, 2004 winter storm on FedEx's Memphis operation

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Tuesday, 31 January 2006
Impacts of the December 22, 2004 winter storm on FedEx's Memphis operation
A301 (Georgia World Congress Center)
Erik A. Proseus, FedEx Express, Memphis, TN; and T. K. Hansen

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It is a sight to behold – 150 jet aircraft descending on the "SuperHub," a million plus packages unloaded, sorted, and reloaded on the aircraft, and the same birds departing – all in the dead of night in a seven hour period. This is the time-sensitive operation that FedEx Express runs five nights a week, year-round, at Memphis International Airport, Memphis, TN. And as with all airline operations, weather plays a key role in just how well the diligently-planned schedule unfolds. Co-located with the Global Operations Control (GOC) facility, where flight dispatchers and operations managers constantly monitor and tweak the system, FedEx meteorologists provide forecasts for every city that trunk aircraft fly into and brief GOC management, dispatchers, and pilots on potential weather problems. The busiest time of year for FedEx cargo operations is the time from Thanksgiving to Christmas, commonly called "peak," with the most crucial period being the last few days before Christmas, when many last minute shoppers "FedEx" their Christmas gifts to friends and loved ones. Volume peaks that week with as much as a 30% increase system-wide and any minor disruptions can easily escalate into major issues.

On December 22, 2004, a cold front was positioned east of Memphis through middle Tennessee and eastern Mississippi, low pressure was located along the front over northern Louisiana and central Mississippi, and an upper-level trough was traversing the region. This combination was producing precipitation over the Mid-South that began as rain, transitioned to freezing rain, continued for several more hours as light to moderate sleet, and ended as light snow. In the end, the region was blanketed with 2 inches of frozen precipitation, making basic exercises such as walking and driving treacherous. Needless to say, airline operations came to a near standstill and since cold air advection brought bitter cold temperatures for several days, a lack of melting resulted in extended impacts even after the precipitation ceased. FedEx aircraft that arrived in Memphis before or during the freezing precipitation event "turned into popsicles" as they sat on the ground and endured freezing temperatures through Christmas Day. In the end, hundreds of flights filled with boxes and envelopes containing Christmas cheer were cancelled and many shipments were delayed. Following the usual post-mortem FedEx undertakes after significant weather events, adjustments have been made to the winter operations procedures. In this paper, we will provide a broad overview of the Meteorology Department's role in FedEx's domestic air operation, examine the environment in the time period around the event in question, and finally look at how the storm affected both air and hub/ground operations in Memphis during Peak Week 2005.