- The Washington Times - Monday, December 22, 2008

Rashaan Hicks, a Waldorf resident who has been with FedEx Corp. for eight years, is used to working right up until Christmas Eve until the last package is delivered.

“You get a feeling of accomplishment because you feel you’re doing a service to the customer,” he said. Mr. Hicks is a swing driver, which means he’ll be filling in on any number of routes during the hectic days before Christmas.

“Everybody’s shopping,” said Mr. Hicks.

He told the story of making a delivery at one of the embassies when a woman said she had been waiting for a package for more than a week. The package was her passport, and she was trying to go home for the holidays. Mr. Hicks said he suggested checking the tracking information available online, and she discovered that it had arrived and that someone else had signed for it.

He smiled remembering her relief that she would be able to get home for Christmas. Around the holidays, he said, people are more cheery. “You always get a smile.”

Senior manager Dave Smith joked that he encourages the 400 employees of the D.C. location to sing Christmas carols during the holiday season. Although they handle important packages and are serious about getting them to their destinations, “There’s nothing wrong with having a smile on your face,” he said.

Many Americans are turning to FedEx Express to make sure that Christmas gifts are under the tree on time, but the holiday surge can only provide a brief respite from the anticipated hard times ahead.

FedEx Corp. last week announced broad cost cuts - including salary reductions - as deteriorating economic conditions continue to drag down demand, warning that the outlook for 2009 remains murky.

Chief Executive Frederick W. Smith said the company’s earnings are “increasingly being challenged by some of the worst economic conditions in the company’s 35-year operating history.” FedEx reported that its fiscal second-quarter earnings rose 3 percent, narrowly topping Wall Street’s expectations.

The Memphis, Tenn.-based package-delivery company said it will cut pay for senior executives and freeze 401(k) contributions for a year. On Jan. 1, CEO Smith will take a 20 percent pay cut, and the pay of other top brass will fall by 7.5 percent to 10 percent.

FedEx will also implement a 5 percent pay cut for all remaining U.S. “salaried exempt” personnel, which excludes hourly workers such as couriers and package handlers. Mechanics and pilots are also excluded from this category. FedEx said it has about 36,000 salaried exempt U.S. workers.

Dec. 15 was probably the high-volume day for FedEx as a whole, Dave Smith said, and Tuesday will be the last day to mail packages for Christmas.

For the D.C. FedEx Express location, the holidays mean the highest volume of packages all year. The entire FedEx Corp. handled 11.1 million packages on its busiest day last year. On average, FedEx handles 7.5 million packages in the off season.

The packages that are going out for delivery with couriers like Mr. Hicks have followed a complex process to get to the final leg of their journey.

Packages are picked up and scanned into the system, then sorted and sent out to the airport, if needed. FedEx Express was the first nonpassenger airline to use Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport, according to Mr. Smith.

For those packages arriving at Reagan for distribution in Washington, large trucks await to bring them back to the sorting facilities. All of this occurs before 4 a.m., while most people are still sleeping.

At the Washington facility, items are sorted on six belts on two floors with workers making sure that labels are facing upward for easy scanning.

Trucks roll out with their deliveries by 8 a.m., and Mr. Smith said that the facility is nearly empty by 8:30, although there are people coming and going throughout the day.

To accommodate the additional packages FedEx handles during the holidays, he said that the company’s part-time staff comes in handy. “We’re not at the point where we’re fully staffed, but we’re close,” he said.

More trucks on the road and more routes help FedEx make Christmas happen around the District and its 300 ZIP codes, but as Christmas draws closer, issues of inclement weather and holiday-travel traffic make Mr. Smith’s job more challenging.

For these reasons, planning for the Christmas rush begins in May, takes into account past years’ experiences, and includes contingency plans for poor weather. “There’s always a certain degree of, ‘You’re at the mercy of Mother Nature,’” Mr. Smith said.

Driving in the city can also present problems in the days leading up to Christmas as holiday travelers may slow traffic periodically. This mostly affects the trucks moving between the FedEx sorting facility and the airport, Mr. Smith said.

“We are a society of procrastinators,” he said.

Mr. Hicks says he sees an average of 40 to 60 people each day delivering packages, and even more during the holidays. “I’m one of Dave’s soldiers,” he said of Mr. Smith.

In the weeks leading up to the holiday, he not only expected to be delivering a lot of packages, but also answering a lot of questions about tracking numbers and delivery confirmations as well as “a lot of door tags.” The tags indicate that a FedEx driver tried to deliver a package but that the occupant was not home to sign for it.

During the busy days, however, Mr. Hicks said he enjoys interacting with customers, especially those who are excited about receiving gifts.

“They love to see the FedEx guy. They know there’s a present coming,” he said.

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