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  1. Business

Meteorologists work to keep your holiday deliveries on time — no matter what

MEMPHIS — Deep within a global operations nerve center here, a team of specially trained operatives scan data from nearly 200 countries, issues urgent "SNOCON" alerts and tracks a fleet of cargo jets via a glowing, wall-sized "war board."

Their mission? To make sure no Frozen doll is left behind.

They are corporate meteorologists, commanded to help keep hectic holiday shipments on time, snow or shine. And America's shipping giants increasingly see them as a secret weapon, both in the fight against a brutal winter and in what could be the busiest online shopping season in history.

UPS and FedEx expect to handle a record-breaking 900 million packages this month — about three for every man, woman and child in America — and there is no room for error, not with billions of dollars of business involved.

The job has become more demanding as online storefronts promise near-instant gratification through perks such as free shipping or same-day delivery, and as package-tracking shoppers have grown more acutely aware of — and annoyed by — how long their Blu-ray player has been sitting in Buffalo, N.Y.

"Someone awaiting a package in Bangkok doesn't care if it snowed in Louisville, Ky.," said Randy Baker, a senior meteorologist for UPS Airlines. "They want their stuff."

Some meteorologists help big retailers, including Wal-Mart and Home Depot, prepare for emergencies and know what to stock. But shipping weather work can prove far more complex, with forecasters helping reroute jets around rough weather; mobilize deicing and refueling crews; and prepare pilots for the worst of fog, frost and potentially million-dollar delays.

The largest shipping firms' top meteorologists are a motley crew of Air Force veterans, experienced forecasters and part-time storm chasers, many of them weather nerds who can trace their love of sky-watching back to a seminal childhood blizzard, hurricane or act of God.

This winter could be their biggest test yet. The National Retail Federation expects that about 45 percent of Americans will do their holiday shopping online, and Forrester Research analysts predict that online sales will rise about 13 percent this season, to $89 billion.

The shipping industry can barely afford a repeat of last winter's misery. As forecasters fought to dodge the polar vortex and a battery of icy storms, shipping crews were overrun by a binge of last-minute Christmas orders. UPS was overwhelmed so thoroughly that it missed crucial Christmas deliveries, and FedEx slashed $125 million from its expected profits, a hit that chief financial officer Alan Graf called "beyond the realm of believable."

Amid this tension, shipping meteorologists' work can take on an air of near-military momentousness, including among the 15 expert weather-watchers at FedEx's global command complex. On the chaotic travel day before Thanksgiving, meteorologists there flitted among four monitors' worth of satellite, radar and weather-model data, prepping for questions about when, for instance, rain would change to snow at Newark International Airport.

Weather watching has long been a key battleground for the international shipping elite: UPS launched its meteorology department 20 years ago after a surprise blizzard crippled the firm's central air hub in Louisville. The teams now work on 24-hour schedules, befitting the cargo world's endless pace. One or more of UPS' 237 cargo jets is flying at all times, and the company charters even more aircraft during winter to help with an average of 1,955 cargo flights a day.

Delivery data from logistics firm ShipMatrix show that FedEx and UPS are off to a strong start, and the firm expects the carriers to have an on-time delivery rate of 95 percent or better on Christmas Eve.

But the world's increasingly complex shipping network has made global transit a game of brutal math. As with highway traffic, any small delay can ripple larger down the chain. Every minute of weather delays can cost hundreds of dollars more in spent fuel, service failures and stranded crews; spread across a fleet making thousands of flights a year, the cost can tally into the millions. "Canceling flights is not an option," Baker said.

When forecasts aren't enough, the top shipping firms often turn to desperate measures. FedEx dispatches special "sweep flight" jets to amble aimlessly across the skies so that, in case of emergency, they can swoop down to intercept and deliver stranded packages. UPS runs a similar "hot spare" program, with more than a dozen standby jets and crews stationed across the United States, Asia and Europe, ready to take off within 30 minutes of a call for help. The program "rescues" more than 1 million packages a year, said one UPS spokesman, who called it "an expensive but vital insurance policy."