Operation iPhone Drop: From Cargo Plane to Door Stoop

On Friday parcel carriers will deliver over 1 million new iPhones to early adopters, in a kind of secular Christmas for gadget lovers everywhere. Behind the scenes, Operation iPhone Drop is a massive logistical ballet, reliant on a clockwork collaboration among Apple, Chinese manufacturer Foxconn, U.S. Customs officials at the border, and shippers like FedEx and UPS.

“I have heard that 70 charters have already been booked to come out of Asia in the next few weeks,” says research analyst Kevin W. Sterling of BB&T Capital Markets. “I think that most of that, I can’t verify it, but I think most of it has been booked by Apple.”

Apple launches historically trigger a six-week long jolt to the global shipping system, according to Sterling. During the iPad release in March 2012, the increase in volume drove up shipping prices from Asia by 20 percent in a week, Sterling estimates, “because Apple came in and bought up so much air freight capacity.”

“It’s fascinating to see one company influences the market so much. We’ve never seen something like this,” Sterling says.

Once the gadgets land in the U.S. and clear Customs, delivery services spring into action. That’s where the fun begins. At UPS, Apple launch days begin with organized pep talks a few minutes before the drivers hit the road, according to a UPS driver who spoke with Wired on condition of anonymity. In that early morning meeting drivers are reminded of how important the day’s deliveries are, and briefed on special procedures.

“One thing we do is if we can’t complete the delivery by the end of the day, what we have to do is offload those packages,” the UPS driver said. “We have to bring them to our supervisor and put them in their offices.” The supervisor then locks up his or her office, keeping all those iPhones safe until the next day.

“Apple is huge customer for UPS and they go through great lengths to take care of them,” the driver added. (A UPS spokeswoman declined to comment on the company’s partership with Apple. FedEx, which also delivers iPhones, did not return a phone call.)

The driver described a palpable excitement while delivering the first batch of Apple goods. Some people take the day off to receive their device at home — not a bad idea, because all Apple deliveries require a signature. ”It’s amazing; people are waiting by the front door and on the porch,” the driver says, “They’re out there at 10:30 a.m. waiting.”

At one delivery last year, the driver recalls, “This lady came out of her house, walked down her driveway while I was in the back of the truck grabbing the packages. When I came out, she was sitting there at the curb waiting for me. I was like, ‘Wow.’”

The driver even shared an iPhone 4S unboxing moment with one customer. ”I got there kinda early and said, ‘Hey, let’s open it up and look at it.’ … We opened it up together. I’d heard about it, but I hadn’t seen one up until that moment.”

Surprisingly, the excitement of customers on an Apple product release is only slightly higher than a usual work day. On a scale of 1 to 10, the usual day ranks as a 6, while iPhone day ranks at an 8 or 9, according to the UPS driver.

“We’re always bringing stuff that people want,” the driver says.

There’s probably a large amount of post-delivery giddy dancing going on behind closed doors.