UPS online tracking doesn't actually know where your package is

Few things are as dull as "where's my package?" customer sob stories, but this one is different. It turns up an interesting tidbit: Just because UPS's online tracking system tells you that your package is in a certain location doesn't mean it actually is.

A few Fridays ago, I expected a package of perishable items. Snow had the northeast frozen, figuratively and literally, and so I turned to to confirm my suspicion that my package wasn't going to arrive on time. That was no one's fault. The weather can't be controlled. But at least I wanted to know if I could be away from the house if Brown wasn't going to be showing up.

To my befuddlement, UPS's tracking log had my goods breaking the laws of physics. It showed an "arrival scan" in Newark, NJ, at 6:27 a.m. But three minutes later, at 6:30 a.m., my box was listed as being in Louisville, KY. The two cities are 642 miles apart.

I asked a (very accommodating) rep at UPS to explain how my package achieved a speed of 12,840 mph. UPS's response to me begins with an impossibility, but then settles into more solid explanation:

"Both scans are accurate. Our contingency operation is located in Louisville, KY. When there are significant weather issues, that team stays in touch on a continuing basis to assess operations at the destination gateway airports such as Newark. They can enter weather exception information that is visible on the package tracking system. The aircraft may have landed with an arrival scan, but the volume may not yet have been unloaded or processed for the ground operation that moves it to the next location or final delivery center. Weather conditions were rapidly changing in the northeast [that] morning."

So it sounds to me like the package was in Newark, but the contingency operation in Kentucky halted its progress, which resulted in another line on the tracking report. I think. I could be wrong. Regardless of the way it happened, though, and the true location of my stuff, the end result was the same: My perishable package was somewhere en route, and delayed.

There are more alarming customer service yarns than mine. And I still don't have anything against UPS. In fact, I've used it since then. But it's surprising to learn that these delivery companies' online tracking systems aren't as plainspoken as customers believe them to be. That's probably not a new lesson: You can't trust everything a company tells you, even if it tells you in a format that would appear to be a real-time report.

Now you know.
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