Around the World... in How Many Days?

Sept. 17, 2007
Unbenownst to them, three of the world’s leading cargo carriers were recently put to the test to see who could deliver the fastest to some of the world’s more remote locations.

When President Polk wanted to send a letter to the Far West in 1845, it took six months for his message to reach its final destination. This was accomplished by either traveling around the bottom tip of South America or crossing the Panama Isthmus. A little over 80 years later, the world would become captivated by Charles Lindbergh’s flight across the Atlantic. In just 33.5 hours he flew from Long Island, N.Y. to Paris, France. While today, 33 hours sounds like an obscene amount of time for a trip that now takes just a little over seven — it was the quintessential giant leap for air freighters.

Fast forward another 80 years and today there are scads of cargo carriers delivering packages, letters and almost anything a consumer could ever desire all over the globe. But just how far can the carriers reach? How long will it take to get there? And how much will it cost? These are all questions Dr. John J. Bartholdi, III, research director for the Supply Chain and Logistics Institute at Georgia Tech and his students set out to discover.

Through an “informal” annual study, Bartholdi’s group of about 60 students sent packages through UPS, DHL and FedEx to five remote locations around the world. The 2007 race began on April 13, when the boxes were sent out to: Apia, the only city on Upulu in the Western Pacific Ocean; Florianopolis, an island off the coast of southern Brazil; Harare the capitol of Zimbabwe; Tikrit, the birth place of Saddam Hussein; and Yangon, in what is formerly known as Burma. According to Bartholdi, the destinations are purposely extreme and are selected to provide an added challenge to the carriers.

“In the past, we have specifically looked for unusual or hard-to-reach destinations, ones that will provide some challenges in transport and visibility,” Bartholdi explains. “Differences in the abilities of the carriers to move packages between N.Y. and L.A. are measured in hours; at the edges of their networks, the differences are measured in days or even weeks and we can more easily see weaknesses in the networks. That said, many of the destinations have been suggested by students. Georgia Tech is a wonderfully diverse university, drawing students from all over the world. I personally do not know anyone in Ouagadougou, but there is a pretty good chance one of my students does.”

Great Package Race Results
Apia 1. DHL
April 18 1315
18 Apr 1420
3. UPS
Last seen in Auckland 11 days ago
Florianopolis 1. FedEx
17 Apr 1330
17 Apr 1808
3. UPS
Delayed 4 days in Campinas, Brazil: “the address is in a remote area and deliveries are not made daily”
Delivery attempt 23 Apr 1903, after business hours. Successful delivery 24 Apr 1805. Harare 1. UPS
17 Apr 1635
20 Apr 0855
Missed delivery 17 Apr so had to wait until after national day holiday 3. FedEx
Undelivered as of 30 Apr
In Harare for past 10 days: “held, unable to collect payment” Tikrit 1. DHL
17 Apr 1400
17 Apr 1645
Package turned back at Dubai because “service not available”. After sitting in Louisville for 7 days the package was returned. We were billed nonetheless. Yangon 1. DHL
18 Apr 1159
Returned package with no explanation
Returned package because “Invoice and receiver IRS # required”

The carrier’s are unaware they are in a competition until the end results are announced. The students called ahead to each carrier to see if the companies saw any immediate problems with the delivery. Both FedEx and UPS said they could not ship to Myanmar but, according to the research group, gave no explanation why. DHL told the students it could ship in to but not out of Myanmar. The group also reported that UPS’ phone rep insisted there was no such country as Samoa.

The group recorded all warnings provided by the carriers and preceded with the experiment despite of them. The progress of each package was tracked by the students via the internet. Payments for the shipping charges were paid in full at the start of the race. The group experienced a large variety in the prices charged by the carriers as well as delivery status of the packages. At of the end of the race on April 27, 2007 DHL was declared the winner, having delivered all five of its packages. By April 30, FedEx had delivered three packages, one was being held for payment and one had been declined. UPS had delivered two packages, one was still en route, one had been returned and the last was declined. [See chart on pg. 26 for full results and costs]

Bartholdi says the actions of the cargo handlers can directly impact the timeliness of a delivery.

“It is my impression that all three major carriers have finely-tuned cargo handling practices and they rely on these for high performance,” he says. “Where there are lapses in performance, they tend to be in other areas, such as the ‘last mile’ of delivery, especially where that is handled by a sub-contractor. All three carriers seem able to get the package near its final destination very quickly, but movement slows down after that.”

According to Bartholdi, handlers could help to ensure a prompt delivery through little efforts such as checking the container scans are accurate — a problem UPS had in a past competition. In 2004, UPS’ tracking system reported a package sent to Lome, Togo crossed the Atlantic eight times before arriving at its final destination, something the carrier blamed on a faulty scan.

“It seems hard to improve on processes that are already very highly engineered,” Bartholdi says of the cargo handling. “But make sure all those scans are accurate! The tracking report posted by UPS repeatedly listed “keying error” as the reason for repeatedly re-routing of the package. But I have since learned that the problem may have been that the package was improperly scanned when removed from the air transport container. If its removal was not properly registered, then the IT system would continue to assume the package was still in the container, which shuttled back and forth, while our package sat in either Philadelphia or Johannesburg. It is our impression that the larger opportunities for improvement are in the systems that support ground handlers or else out at the fringes of the network, close to the customer.”

Once the race is over the winner is notified. This year DHL was named champion.

“Lately DHL has been doing very well, and at a lower price,” Bartholdi says of the carrier who also came in a close second in 2006. “This probably reflects the fact that DHL seems to have a stronger presence in the sort of places we have chosen.”

“We are not surprised to see that DHL’s global leadership was clearly demonstrated through this independent test,” Lindsey Birley, executive vice president for international products and services said in the statement. “Our international footprint and our commitment to customer service give DHL the ability and flexibility to ship not only to hundreds of cities and ports, but to get shipments to even the worlds most remote destinations.”

Bartholdi says often the winners of the race will speak at the school, something the students really enjoy. Since many of the graduates go on to work for carriers, such as UPS, FedEx, BAX, Schneider National and Delta Airlines where they build computer/math models to optimize routes or schedules, or perform revenue management.

“I think [the students find] it is the sheer reachability of almost all parts of the globe [that is the most interesting]. Twenty years ago, it took about six weeks for postal mail to reach China. The students have always been very interested in hearing from representatives of the carriers, who generally come speak after the race. It is impressive to hear them describe their freight networks, which encircle the globe, and are marvels of coordination.”