Around 5:30 in the morning, the package-sorting machine at 647B Summer St. near South Station whirs to life.
Technically, it almost never sleeps. By the time I reached United Parcel Service’s South Boston warehouse at 4:30 a.m. last Thursday to catch a glimpse of how shippers are dealing with the holiday rush, workers were already unloading, labeling, and sorting truckloads of packages for delivery, here and elsewhere. Tiers of conveyor belts that loop around one end of the massive warehouse barely had time to cool, having shut down only at 11 p.m. the night before.
At Logan Airport, UPS planes from Philadelphia and Louisville are already on the ground. They start landing at 4 a.m., and until the sun comes up, bright lights guide the way for the workers who lug the two-ton canisters from the plane to trucks heading for UPS hubs around central New England. Standing in a frigid rain, Chris Burt, UPS’s northeast district air manager, surveys the manic symphony of movement, a wide smile on his face.
“It looks like chaos, but it’s not,” Burt told me. “This is one of the best years we’ve had.”
That’s the hope, anyway. In 2013, UPS and FedEx — the two largest private delivery services in the United States — were forced to apologize to consumers after a wave of last-minute Christmas shopping led an estimated 1 million packages to be delivered later than promised, leaving many families without gifts on Dec. 25.
The public relations disaster happened even though UPS had hired 85,000 seasonal workers, 30,000 more than the company had previously predicted it would need. This year, the company expects to have as many as 95,000 seasonal hires, and it is renting trucks and airplanes to help move 11 percent more packages than during the 2013 holiday period.
At the South Boston warehouse, which has added some 85 workers to its normal workforce of 215 so far, eight trucks can dock at a time. They are emptied by a retractable conveyor belt that reaches farther and farther inside as workers haul out packages. Trucks from the airport have their own dock, where four doors along the side of each trailer are opened to reveal the “air cans” that came off the plane. The average can carries 400 to 500 parcels.
Once packages come off the truck, workers such as Yuka Barros “SPA” them. “SPA-ing,” which is UPS parlance for “scan, print, apply,” is a lightning-fast process that prints a label so other workers in the warehouse know which of six outbound conveyor belts to direct the package to, which delivery van to put it on, and which shelf in the van’s cargo hold it belongs on.
“It’s crazy,” said Barros, a preloader who’s been schlepping and SPA-ing since 1 a.m. “I don’t know what’s the night and what’s the day.”
SPA is just one of a seemingly endless number of acronyms UPS workers must learn. In just a few brief conversations, I learned the meaning of PDS, PFT, PAL, EAM, ULD, AFD, and CHSP. That thing your driver gives you to sign is called a DIAD, which stands for delivery information acquisition device. It’s a combination text messenger, scanner, and package manifest.
As Christmas draws close, every second and every inch count. The South Boston warehouse loads 86 vans each morning —15 more than it was designed to accommodate. Kathy Goodwin, the first driver I ride along with, has to fold her van’s mirrors in so she can squeeze it from its parking spot.
Rick Stahl, whom I joined for his deliveries around the North End, has this routine down to under three seconds: Put the van in park, shut off the engine, hit the flashers, unbuckle the seat belt, and step into the cargo hold, whose door opened automatically when the engine cut out. It’s one fluid motion made perfect by 22 years of experience.
“Most drivers have an innate sense of time and efficiency,” Stahl told me as we pulled out of South Station. Being good at Tetris probably helps, too: As the days to Christmas dwindle, UPS trucks get more and more packed, meaning drivers have to pick their way around flatscreen TVs and other large items to reach smaller packages.
As Stahl drove along his North End route — with an unusually light load for the day — he reflected on how e-commerce has changed his job. He still remembers the first package he delivered that was ordered online in the mid-1990s. Today, Amazon packages dominate his van’s cargo hold.
“Prior to two or three years ago, Christmas Eve would actually be a light day, but this is a different world than it was five years ago,” he said.
UPS workers may fancy themselves to be “Santa Claus in brown,” as one driver told me, and they pride themselves on their safety and efficiency. But the instant-gratification mentality of shoppers who leave their Christmas buying to Dec. 23 drives some of them up the wall.
“During the month of December, I work, I eat, I sleep. Weekends are recovery. That’s it,” Stahl said. “But that’s the deal.”
Company officials said they will be able to handle the madness as long as the skies stay clear. South Boston operations manager Bill Sullivan said the holiday crunch is something UPS has been planning for all year.
“We’re ready,” Sullivan said. “Keep the weather till January, and we’ll be all set.”Jack Newsham can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @TheNewsHam.