How UPS and FedEx battle bad weather

Will UPS' weathermen save Christmas?
Will UPS' weathermen save Christmas?

Santa had Rudolph's red nose. UPS and FedEx keep up with a stable of meteorologists.

Behind the scenes at the shipping giants is a sophisticated team of meteorologists and planners who keep the trucks running, planes flying and packages headed toward your Christmas tree whether it's foggy in Indianapolis or snowing in Louisville, where CNNMoney got an inside view of the UPS command center.

Their nightmare? A "big snow or ice storm at one of our hubs," UPS (UPS) meteorologist Randy Baker told CNNMoney.

Storms wreak a special level of havoc when they hit during the busy holiday shipping season.

Monday is expected to be the busiest day of the year for UPS. It planned to handle at least 34 million packages that day and a total of 585 million in December. FedEx (FDX) and the U.S. Postal Service expected their busiest day of the season fell a week ago.

"Normal airlines, if passengers don't depart on their flight, they can actually roll to another flight," said Steve Merchant, the contingency manager at UPS. But UPS has a lot more riding on each individual flight. "A normal plane might be moving 230 passengers, whereas one of my planes might be moving 15,000 passengers in the form of packages."

Forecasters at both UPS and FedEx sit in a control center alongside the teams that schedule crews, dispatch planes, develop contingency plans and keep the day-to-day operations flowing. Their job is to look at both the big picture -- say, a hurricane barreling towards the coast -- and the conditions for individual takeoffs and landings.

"Occasionally we're wrong and we hear about it," Baker said.

That's what happened last year, when many packages from Amazon (AMZN) weren't delivered in time for Christmas. While badweather was a factor, UPS underestimated a last-minute surge in orders. Major companies like Amazon actually give UPS and FedEx projections about their volume.

Related: How has middle class Christmas changed

FedEx's team of 15 meteorologists provide "a crystal ball" as early as ten days out, Paul Tronsor, FedEx's managing director of global operations, told CNNMoney. That's a big help in keeping the fleet of 650 planes, 150,000 trucks and 300,000 employees nimble.

"There was a severe ice storm headed for Dallas last year," Tronsor recalled. "We closed that facility because of that ice storm and we rerouted all of that traffic to Memphis." The planes could've landed in Denver, but icy roads meant thousands of packages would've been stranded once on the ground.

The team runs forecasts on each key airport two or three times a day, FedEx meteorology manager Kory Gempler told CNNMoney.

So far, the weather this season has been "fairly tranquil," said Gempler. But he's watching a storm that could complicate travel and deliveries on Christmas Eve.

"The only thing I wish Kory (Gemper) could do is control the weather instead of just forecast it," Tronsor said.

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