- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Santa Claus needs all the help he can get, and FedEx is happy to oblige.

It’s 6:30 a.m. when the first trucks arrive at the FedEx shipping center in Northeast. Workers walk into the facility, form a circle and begin stretching like players before a game.

These are Santa’s helpers, D.C. style. Energized by an early morning breakfast, they start unloading the trucks that have just arrived from Washington Dulles International Airport.

This is the company’s biggest week. Officials at FedEx Corp. estimate that nearly 9.8 million packages were handled on Monday, easily besting last year’s 8.9 million mark.

The sorters take the packages one by one from their shipping containers and separate them onto six conveyor belts. The belts transport the packages to the other side of the facility, where couriers load them into their trucks for doorstep delivery.

The shipping center at 1501 Eckington Place NE was built in 1992 to replace the old distribution center on Jefferson Davis Highway, next to Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport. The current plant has 400 employees, with two sorting floors and one office floor.

Chris Ketcham, an operations manager at the plant, stands beside the sorting line sipping a cup of coffee. He’s been up since 3 a.m., but he’s got enough energy to run a marathon.

“This weather is great,” said the upbeat Seattle native. It’s 48 degrees outside, unseasonably warm for December in the District.

Just about everyone in the facility is thankful for the temperature. Some recall the blizzards of 1996 and 1998, when snow and ice slowed operations at the plant almost to a standstill.

“Weather plays a huge role; luckily it hasn’t been a huge issue in our area,” said Mr. Ketcham. “It’s a completely uncontrollable thing, but it can definitely affect us.”

FedEx has taken many steps to ensure that deliveries can be made even in the most inclement weather.

“We have meteorologists that help determine flight routes for deliveries around the world, and we make sure to precheck our vehicles to make sure they are in good condition,” said Mr. Ketcham.

“Weather is the biggest factor we have to deal with,” said Clifton Hawkins, a FedEx courier who just celebrated his 30th year with the company. Over the years, “you really get your ups and downs.”

Mr. Hawkins started working for the company in 1976, three years after FedEx delivered its first package.

Mr. Hawkins, a Fort Washington resident, said he stuck with the company because “they treat their people well and they really believe in people first, then service.”

On its first night of operations in 1973, Federal Express delivered 186 packages to 25 cities using 14 company-owned planes.

Currently, FedEx uses more than 670 aircraft and 70,000 vehicles to move shipments throughout 220 countries worldwide.

Mr. Hawkins said that over the course of his 30 years he has seen the company evolve and grow. “Back then I was driving a van, now we have these hybrid trucks.”

FedEx has been taking progressive steps to change its fuel consumption habits. It has converted its fleet to use recycled diesel/biodiesel fuel, and many of its new trucks are propelled by hybrid diesel/electric power source.

The truck engines may be quiet, but the facility is buzzing with noise and energy.

“We get really, really busy this time of the year,” said Donald Falwell, a manager at the sorting center. “This station gets the most volume in the area.”

The Northeast facility is one of three FedEx centers that sort and distribute the thousands of packages that are delivered to the D.C. area during the holidays. The other two centers are located in Herndon and Rockville.

It’s not uncommon for FedEx employees to work 12-hour shifts to deliver the tremendous influx of packages during the holidays.

“Usually, we schedule extra people and work longer shifts so we have a buffer in case something breaks down,” said Mr. Falwell. But come Friday — the last day customers have to ship their packages by FedEx Express — “we definitely kick back and celebrate when it’s all done.”

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