International shipping companies are scrambling to keep their operations moving, even as volcanic ash from Iceland closes down air traffic across much of Europe.
"Our folks are in touch with our international global operations control in Europe," says Sally Davenport with FedEx (FDX). "They're on constant conference calls, they're looking at contingencies through the weekend. Hopefully we will be able to settle into some sort of routine, if at all possible, to better manage the situation."
United Parcel Service (UPS), which delivers about 2 million packages outside of the U.S. daily, says their European air operations shut down early Friday and are closed indefinitely.
"We have a contingency operation in effect," says UPS's Norman Black. "We're storing packages until we can resume flying. The aircraft are generally held at their origin point, and the packages are stored under lock and key."
Also on Friday, FedEx announced it would stop accepting four different types of international freight shipments from the U.S. bound for Europe. "We are trying to control any backlogs that may begin to occur in our system," says Davenport.
Time-sensitive documents make up a large part of international air shipments. But the volcano has made most promises of overnight or even three-day deliveries to Europe questionable, at best. "We have had to suspend the money-back guarantee," says Fedex's Davenport, "because acts of nature beyond our control are not covered."
Black says UPS delivered anything "that was already in the system" to Europe ahead of the ash cloud's arrival there on Thursday -- that is, anything that came through the UPS hub in Cologne before Germany closed its airspace. But, he says, "if someone is sending something time-sensitive and it's international...it's coming from the U.S. or Latin America or Asia or the Middle East -- the short answer is, it's not moving."
As the volcanic plume moves across Europe, shipping companies are trying to stay one step ahead by shifting their operations away from affected European airports. DHL's primary European hub in Leipzig, Germany, is closed, "so we have to create an ad hoc network," says Joerg Wiedemann, a DHL spokesperson in Bonn.
Rerouted to Alternative Hubs
For now, he says, DHL cargo planes are still operating in the parts of European airspace unaffected by the ash cloud. They have been rerouted to alternative hubs, such as Bergamo, Italy, with shipments then traveling via ground transportation. Wiedemann says DHL is "seeing to it that the shipments, all shipments, are being processed as quickly as possible."
"We are still making pickups and deliveries with our customers in Europe and have moved to a ground contingency operation," says UPS's Black, "where we're trying to move and deliver as many packages as we can on the road."
Black notes that Europe is "very drivable," especially when compared to driving distances in North America, "so generally when we go to ground with something like this you're really only...adding about a one-day delay."
With international aviation routes in turmoil and no end in sight to the crisis, the shippers are trying to plan ahead. Sally Davenport says FedEx already made plans for next week's operations. "Most days around the world, FedEx is usually having some sort of situation to plan around, so we're very good at it," she says. "We just have to take in all the factors that are affecting this particular one."
Paralysis Like After 9/11
UPS's Black compares the current air paralysis in Europe to the 9/11 terrorist attacks in 2001, when the U.S. government shut down its entire airspace for several days. In response, "We took every air package that was in our system and every air package that was tendered to us for the next two days and moved it via our ground network," he says. "Our customers knew that things were going to be delayed, but at least they knew it was moving, and it was gonna get delivered. So it's the same kind of contingency operation now in Europe. Obviously it's not as fast as an airplane, but we're using the ground."
In the meantime, the shipping companies are waiting for the all-clear from Europe, so they can get back into the air.
"We'll go 'normal' the second the airspace opens," says Black. "It's not going to take us any time to resume operations and get everything moving again. Everything is staged, it's just a matter of when do we get the okay."