UPS owns their trucks

At some point that night, the visitor's head will spin. Too many parcels, small and large, speeding through the halls on countless conveyor belts. Tilting trays fold down again and again and drop a package into a sorting compartment. There are winding chutes next to them, through which other parcels rush down. At the end, employees stack the parcels in semicircular containers, which are then transported on a trailer to the aircraft on the apron. There, others grab the containers and put them in planes that will soon take off. And off you go.

The parcel service provider UPS operates its central air transshipment point in Europe at Cologne-Bonn Airport. The American company chose the city on the Rhine for several reasons. On the one hand, many European metropolises can be easily reached from there by plane, and on the other hand, unlike in Frankfurt or Munich, there is no night flight ban at the local airport. Much to the annoyance of many local residents who regularly criticize the nocturnal flying and insist on their night's rest. So far in vain.

For example, if a mail order company from Amsterdam sends a package to San Francisco with UPS, it goes through at least one of the six halls at Cologne-Bonn Airport. Or a supplier from Asia sends an important component by express to a car manufacturer in Ingolstadt, which then goes via Cologne as well. UPS has 42 aircraft take off and land in Cologne every night, and more than 500 (owned and leased) cargo machines are on the move for parcel services worldwide every day. Anyone who spends one night looking at operations in Cologne will have an inkling of the logistical effort that goes into making customers hold their parcels in their hands the next day or the day after that.

And because Internet trade is booming, parcel service providers such as UPS, Hermes, Fedex and DHL are also getting more and more busy. According to the Federal Association of Parcel and Express Logistics (BIEK), more than 3.3 billion parcels were sent in Germany in 2017. The shipment volume has almost doubled since 2000. City planners are already groaning at the flood of delivery vans hurrying into the neighborhoods; the parcel services, in turn, are trying to counter the criticism with pilot projects, such as the conversion to electric drives and delivery by bicycle couriers in individual districts. But according to BIEK, the mark of four billion parcels per year could be broken by 2021 at the latest - there is no end to growth in sight.

This can also be seen in Cologne. The parcel delivery company started there in the mid-1980s in a small hall, which was expanded in the 1990s. In 2006 and 2014, two more, again much larger halls were added - these were built on the other side of the access road and were connected to the existing facilities via two large bridges for conveyor belts. More than 3000 people now sort parcels here every night.

Environmentalists, however, criticize parcel aviation and demand that all transport be carried out by road or rail, at least within Europe. But from UPS's point of view, this is not a viable option: after all, the company, like its competitors, offers certain packages to be delivered the next day by 9 a.m. at the latest - and requires express surcharges for this. In cities that are further away, such as Paris, Lisbon or parts of the USA, this only works if the parcels are brought to the distribution centers there by plane.

That is why time is also an important factor in the parcel handling center in Cologne. Within a few hours, the employees have to unload the gradually arriving machines, as well as the trucks and vans that are delivering further parcels. At the unloading ramps, employees pack the parcels onto conveyor belts, scanners capture the barcodes, and computer-controlled sorting systems distribute the parcels to their respective destinations. At the end there is another employee who stacks parcel by parcel in the semicircular air freight container - the express parcels as far forward as possible, the others behind so that the express parcels are the first to land on the sorting belt when unloading at the respective destination.

The UPS people manage the entire distribution process from a large control room, which is a bit reminiscent of the NASA control center in Houston. Technicians monitor the sorting systems from there; if one fails, send out fitters to fix the problem. The logisticians sit in another corner and watch on large screens which machines will land and when. They direct the employees on the apron, who are unloading the containers with the parcels, to the individual cargo planes by radio. And while the last aircraft are just approaching, the packers are already loading the first aircraft that will soon have to take off.

There is no hectic pace, but there is a lot of activity. Because there is not much time left: the whole sorting plant starts at 11 p.m. and ends around 2.30 a.m. It is busy for three and a half hours, then the planes are back in the air. And the tapes have a break. Until everything starts all over again in the late evening.