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Shippers work to restore fast delivery service
Major shippers continued working Friday to restore expedited delivery services, while logistics firms grappled with backlogs from the nation's unprecedented midweek air shutdown.
The grounding of planes carrying everything from fresh flowers and computer equipment to company payrolls and mail forced more packages onto trucks this week, causing a disruption that industry experts say will take days to unsnarl.
"There's a big backup all over the world of freight," said former U.S. Secretary of Transportation Samuel K. Skinner, chief executive of Chicago's USFreightways Corp., a global logistics and trucking company. "It's going to take a while to work it down."
Still, major shippers including United Parcel Service Inc. and FedEx Corp. not only said they were operating at nearly normal levels Friday, but also reported having cleared out most of their backlog of mail and packages after resuming air operations Thursday, according to company and industry spokesmen.
"There were pockets of disruptions because of specific airport closures, but everybody operated within 85 percent to 95 percent capacity Thursday night and expects normal operations over the weekend," said Steve Alterman, president of the Washington, D.C.-based Cargo Airline Association.
Yet even when the transportation system gets up to speed, shippers and logistics firms will be operating in a dramatically different world from before the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks because of new FAA security rules.
Measures such as electronic sweeps of aircraft prior to boarding apply to cargo as well as passenger planes.
More important to shippers, the FAA has banned loading cargo and mail on airliners that carry passengers.
About 22 percent of domestic air freight and 50 percent of international air freight travels on passenger planes, according to Alterman, citing FAA statistics.
The U.S. Postal Service ships by air about 25 percent of the 650 million pieces of mail it delivers daily.
The brunt of the costs in time and money of complying with the new security measures will be borne mainly by the commercial airline industry, but there will be a much broader economic impact as well, Skinner said.
"If [the FAA] decides to put additional restrictions on moving cargo in the belly of airlines, that will not only affect the airlines but many companies that rely on getting products just in time," he said.
At CDW Computer Centers Inc. in Vernon Hills, the company initiated emergency procedures to expedite its ground shipments of computer equipment to government agencies and customers that lost equipment in the attacks or were providing emergency services.
For other customers, "it's as close to business as usual as possible," said Paul Kozak, CDW executive vice president for operations.
Kozak confirmed that shippers are accepting orders for such expedited services as next-day delivery, but they were not yet able to offer money-back guarantees if they failed to meet the deadline.
Alterman, the air-cargo industry group spokesman, said Friday he expects the money-back guarantees will resume by "early next week."
UPS, which delivers about 13 million packages daily, and FedEx, which delivers about 5 million packages, continued to make pickups and deliveries during the air shutdown and to put all but the long-haul packages on trucks while their planes were grounded. Each operates a fleet of more than 600 planes. "Things are moving, just not at the same pace," said Debbie Koopman, a spokeswoman for Spiegel Inc., a major catalog retailer.
Businesses relying on shipments from overseas faced greater uncertainty about air delivery.
"We're just running into the problem [of shortages of certain imported varieties] now," said Red Kennicott, chairman of floral distributor Kennicott Brothers Co. in Chicago.
About two-thirds of the fresh flowers Kennicott distributes are imported.
Kennicott got word that shipments had resumed from South America to Miami late Thursday, and those flowers were headed north in refrigerated trucks, as is customary. "The shipments from Holland we don't expect until Tuesday at the earliest," he said.
At Crate & Barrel, spokeswoman Bette Kahn said the company relies on FedEx for overnight delivery of a weekly dispatch of correspondence and payroll to 100 stores in 70 locations. Understandably, before air cargo shipments resumed, FedEx could not guarantee delivery.
"Fortunately, this week it's not the paychecks," Kahn said.