Midnight in Memphis will never be the same for Memphis State University students.
Hundreds of students who used to gather in Overton Square bars or venture down to Beale Street clubs to hear the blues, near the banks of the mighty Mississippi River, have a new meeting place now: the Federal Express Superhub at Memphis International Airport.
Between midnight and 2 a.m., a fleet of 60 Federal Express jets converges on Memphis, carrying several hundred thousand documents and packages. There, more than 2,000 workers, many of them Memphis State students, unload the planes, sort the packages, and reload them onto the refueled jets, in an atmosphere of organized chaos. Many students, wearing Federal Express T-shirts and caps, said they are happy to be earning $9 an hour for a guaranteed 17 1/2 hours of work each week, with perks that include free airline trips and tuition refunds.
Within about two hours of their arrival, the Federal Express jets depart Memphis for airports throughout the nation, where they are met in the early morning hours by thousands of Federal Express vans, each of which is equipped with a computer screen that tells the driver where to make pick-ups and deliveries. By 10:30 a.m., the Federal Express overnight deliveries are complete.
"You can pick up the phone and call Federal Express and have a courier almost anywhere in America within 15 minutes," said James L. Barksdale, the company's chief operating officer, discussing the company's fleet of 10,000 vans. "With computers in our vans we can get to almost anybody that quickly, and there are some people who live beyond that reach, but gimme a break and God bless 'em, they don't want to be bothered anyway."
All of the company's overnight deliveries used to be routed through Memphis. As volume has increased, Federal Express recently has found greater economies in establishing regional centers, such as the one in Newark, where packages staying within the Northeast are processed.
The average price of a Federal Express overnight delivery has declined from $28 to $19 as competition has increased, and as formidable and well-known operations such as United Parcel Service challenge Federal Express' dominance of some markets.
Many of the packages moving across conveyor belts in Memphis, where the company is doubling the size of its hub, are filled with components and spare parts, needed early in the morning so that computers and other electronic devices can function. But the belts are also full of important messages, legal documents, hazardous materials and even forgotten formal wear.
The size of the overnight delivery market, which began only 10 years ago, exceeds $3 billion.
With its newest product, ZapMail, Federal Express hopes to fill a niche in the marketplace for two-hour delivery of high-quality copies of documents.
Does America need a delivery service that is faster than overnight?
"We're overcoming time," Barksdale said. "It isn't that the world necessarily wants things quicker, it's that the technology becomes available and then the technology, in turn, pushes the world to be a little quicker. And then people demand more and more."