Inside a Carrier Facility: How Your Goods Are Handled

You made a sale—that's great! Now, you'll need to get the product to the customer. Commercial cargo carriers like the U.S. Postal Service, FedEx, UPS, and DHL can handle most jobs quickly and affordably. Their global reach and economies of scale make modern e-commerce possible.

But what happens to your package along the way to its final destination? Here's a peek inside the delivery process.

What Is a Carrier Facility?

A carrier facility is a logistics hub where packages are sorted, stored temporarily, and processed for further delivery steps by companies like FedEx, UPS, and USPS. Different carriers refer to these facilities by various names, like United States Postal Service Distribution Facility or UPS Worldport.

Depending on the route from your inventory to your customer, your shipment may go through several carrier facilities, such as local branches and global distribution hubs. Still, they all perform the same essential functions to get your parcel to its final delivery on time.

Today's major carriers invest heavily in the latest technology. They fill their facilities with automated processes, artificial intelligence, and robotics to assist the thousands of onsite workers. That's how they can quickly deliver packages on such an enormous scale.

Inbound Processing: When Your Goods Arrive at a Carrier

All the big carriers strive to make it easy for customers to initiate shipments. A carrier may pick up a package from the seller, a third-party fulfillment center, a retail store, a drop box, or elsewhere.

Regardless of origin, the initial step generates labels with barcodes and QR codes to manage and track the package throughout the delivery process. The parcel will first stop at the carrier's closest facility for initial sorting.

Employees scan the package's barcode to access routing and other logistics information assigned by the carrier's central system. This data informs the employees where the item needs to go for the next leg of its journey. Depending on the facility and the package's itinerary, an employee will put the parcel on the correct conveyor belt, in the correct large freight container, or into the right vehicle.

Inside a Major Logistics Hub

UPS Worldport

At 5.2 million square feet, the UPS Worldport at Louisville International Airport in Kentucky is four times the size of the airport's passenger terminal.

At peak capacity, UPS Worldport can process 416,000 packages per hour. Its over 30,000 conveyor belts, if laid end to end, would stretch over 150 miles. 20,000 employees work at this hub, with as many as 10,000 of them onsite at once.

An Air Cargo Nexus

Worldport is home to many of the company's 290 aircraft and the Global Operations Center, which manages all UPS air traffic worldwide. During its busiest times, a UPS cargo plane takes off from or lands at Worldport every minute.

UPS operates more Boeing 747-8F planes than any other model. Each has 700 cubic meters of cargo space, enough for 50 SUVs. The company has countless large freight containers curved along one corner, custom-made to fit inside those planes without wasting cargo space.

How a Major Carrier Facility Processes Packages

UPS crews of 5-6 workers meet cargo planes upon their arrival at Worldport. They unload the large freight containers from the planes and move them into the facility to a central holding area called the Core.

The paths from the 70 cargo gates to the Core have ball-bearing rollers installed in the floors. These rollers reduce friction so that one or two employees can safely move a fully loaded freight container from the plane to the Core. These crews have 45 minutes to unload and reload a plane with more containers.

A Labyrinth of Conveyor

A different set of UPS workers unloads the freight containers in the Core, sorts the contents by type, and places items on the appropriate conveyor belts. Optical scanners along the conveyor belts' paths read the barcodes on the labels and instruct mechanical arms farther down the line to push each package off the belt at the appropriate point.

From there, the items travel down chutes to more conveyor belts, perhaps swept by more mechanical arms into more chutes, and so on, until each comes to rest near another freight container bound for that parcel's next destination. Another worker loads packages into the departing container until it's full or there are no more packages, then moves the container into position for loading into the outbound plane.

Efficiency at Scale

Sometimes, if the next flight is delayed or full, packages may get routed to a large warehouse for short-term storage. But when everything goes smoothly, human hands only touch each package three times at UPS Worldport: when it's unloaded from a container, placed on the first conveyor belt, and loaded into its next container.

The Competition

FedEx and DHL have their own major hubs. The region around Louisville, KY, is popular because it's centrally located within the contiguous United States. FedEx has its World Hub and global headquarters at the Memphis airport in Tennessee and a major facility in Indianapolis. DHL has a major global distribution center at the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport.

The USPS carrier facility in Louisville is more of a regional hub. However, the US Postal Service has a different origin than its commercial competitors and has evolved over a much longer history. USPS is in the midst of its "Delivering for America" plan to modernize its facilities and restructure its operations, so changes are coming.

The Final Leg

Once a package leaves a carrier facility, especially a central distribution center like UPS Worldport, it will likely go through one or more smaller facilities before final delivery. Secondary hubs and local branches have less elaborate inner workings than a global nerve center like UPS Worldport, but their processes serve the same purpose: to ensure that every package from a carrier gets to the right place on time.


The largest carrier facilities are modern marvels. Carrier facilities like UPS Worldport utilize cutting-edge technology and automation to process immense volumes of packages quickly and efficiently. Though complex systems handle most of the work, the human workforce remains essential to keep goods moving across the globe.

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