Santa has a new team of helpers delivering Christmas!
A rare Southern snow in early December found Don and Jason Lord, a father-son driving team at Covenant Transport, sitting warmly in their truck waiting out unexpected wintry road conditions.
In a suburb just west of Atlanta – with its bird’s nest of big roads and crucial status as an eastern shipping center – the Lords checked their in-cab dispatch device, and waited for confirmation of their next load assignment.
The Lords had recently delivered a thousand-mile load for a major less-than-truckload carrier, and at this time of year, it was reasonable to believe it contained Christmas gifts, purchased by shoppers online and slated to be dropped on a doorstep, in some cases, as little as two days later.
Once unheard of, this speed of service is normal in an immediate economy – a luxury most Americans have grown used to, but one that hinges on millions of professional drivers just like the Lords.
Santa’s helpers, also known as over-the-road professional truck drivers, are the hidden figures who drive freight long distances, even cross-country, so that the time-sensitive delivery of goods happens. And it’s horsepower – not a team of reindeer – which powers them.
“It ain’t just me,” said Jason Lord, waiting out the weather on this cold, purple evening. “This country revolves around trucks. Nothing gets anywhere without them.”
Sure, you may very well know Dasher, Dancer, Prancer and Vixen. But it’s the names you don’t know who really make Santa’s deliveries happen.
Covenant Transport is headquartered in Chattanooga, Tenn., a mid-size, Southern meeting point for a handful of Interstates, adjacent to both river and rail.
And here in a city centrally located to the eastern United States, Andy Vanzant, vice president of operations at Covenant Transport, leads a team of 150 operations employees who oversee the logistics and management of nearly 2,500 of Santa’s best helpers.
Because thanks to two-day shipping, Kris Kringle has quite a reputation to uphold.
“We expect that package on our porch in two days or less,” said Vanzant. “The only way to make that happen is expedited team transit.”
Covenant specializes in expedited team transport, with a model built on putting two professional drivers in a truck and powering that truck almost around the clock. Covenant is the secondlargest team carrier in the United States and play a major role in e-commerce.
Just like traditional brick-and-mortar retailers, online retail – and the shippers who move goods bought online – experience a spike in business in the weeks leading up to Christmas, typically beginning around Thanksgiving and not totally subsiding until mid-January.
This year, between Thanksgiving and Cyber Monday alone, more than 174 million Americans went shopping, both in-store and online, according to the National Retail Federation.
And critically, according to an NRF survey, more Americans plan to buy online than in-store this holiday season. And in nearly every meaningful metric, online shopping and e-commerce show only signs of rising in coming years.
And that means carriers like Covenant must also rise to the challenge. Planning for peak season begins as early as the first of July.
“We ramp up about 10 percent in-house to accommodate the logistics of expedited loads [during peak season],” said Vanzant.
In addition, Covenant offers drivers peak pay bonuses to carry expedited loads in the most crucial windows of the holiday shopping season. When everything works as it should, nobody notices the elves working behind the scenes.
“We’re silently making e-commerce happen,” said Vanzant.
Though her role is entirely behind-the-scenes, Kendall Bruning, load planner at Covenant, knows how important her job – like thousands of others across the country – is this time of year.
Part of Bruning’s role is to make sure loads assigned to Covenant are assigned to trucks and then delivered safely, and on time. She works closely with professional drivers to match loads with the best person or truck for the job at that particular moment.
“All year long, where you set schedules – however many a day – during peak, it doubles or triples,” she said.
This year will be Bruning’s fourth at Covenant, and by now, she is a seasoned veteran with three peak seasons under her belt and a network of trusted fleet teams and professional drivers. And with that experience comes a greater understanding of the responsibility of playing Santa.
“If we don’t meet these [deadlines], people aren’t going to get gifts for Christmas,” she said. “You plan [loads], then you check them. You double check them. You triple check them. “Then in the morning, first thing, you check them again. You don’t want them to fail,” she said.
Back in Lithia Springs, Ga., the Lords have confirmation from Vanzant’s team for a load to pick up nearby, away from the logjam of downtown Atlanta. So it’s on to another stop, to pick up another load of toys and goodies – whatever it takes to see the sleigh emptied by Dec. 25.
For the Lords, though, Christmas won’t come until after the actual holiday, likely somewhere closer to Dec. 29. After months out on the road, they’ll finally spend some time back home in Florida, soaking up the warmer weather on sunny shores with their family.
They don’t mind not being home on Christmas day. Because, said Jason, for at least one day, it’s true what the old song says: on Dec. 25, the traffic is terrific.
“More freight gets where it needs to be, and I’m a little bit safer because nobody’s out on the roads,” he said.
It may not be a glamorous job, being a Comet, Cupid, Donnor or Blitzen in a world where Rudolph gets all the glory. But Rudolph sure couldn’t do it by himself.
“We enjoy it and do the best we can,” said Jason. “We trust in God and go with it.”
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