As the old saying goes, “if it’s free, it’s for me,” and for most American consumers, nothing beats free. Ecommerce giant Amazon understands this well and is known for providing its Amazon Prime customers with 2-day shipping on products and effectively wiping out the retail industry in the United States, as people prefer to have things delivered to them for free instead of going to the store directly.
While many people see free shipping and get a package on their doorstep two days later, few recognize the true cost of the package, especially to those flying them across the country. The pilots that fly the Amazon package carrying cargo aircraft are often crisscrossing the world in the dead of night to ensure that these packages get delivered on-time. In order to meet increasing demand, Amazon created Amazon Air, which contracts with cargo airlines to streamline its shipping to customers.
However, some pilots flying on behalf of Amazon Air have claimed that ever since Amazon began its own aviation wing, the pressure on cargo airlines has never been higher and say safety is going to the wayside. Pilots from the three cargo airlines that operate Amazon Air flights — Atlas Air, ABX Air, and Air Transport International — are accepting contracts from Amazon that overwork pilots.
In order to meet demand, Amazon Air plans to operate 40 aircraft from its hub at Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport in Covington, Kentucky to cities across the United States. Although waning in popularity amongst passenger airlines, the Boeing 767-200 and 767-300 variants have found new life in cargo operations and are the aircraft of choice for Amazon Air.
Currently, the total fleet for Amazon Air falls just short of 40, with the remaining aircraft scheduled to be delivered by the end of the year. However, some pilots claim that even with the additional aircraft, the carriers will not be able to meet the demand due to problems within the airlines themselves, problems that pilots are claiming are being ignored by management. According to Atlas Air Captain Michael Russo, the most prevalent problems at his airline are, pilot recruiting and retention, pay and benefits and fatigue.
Pilot Recruiting and Retention
In the midst of a pilot shortage, airlines are looking for pilots any way they can. Signing bonuses, loan repayment plans and improved pay scales have all been used as bargaining tools to get more pilots. According to the pilots of Atlas Air, though, less than half of the company’s most recent hires actually showed up for training.
However, even if Atlas can get the pilots past training and flying, that doesn’t mean it can keep them. It is estimated that 200 pilots are leaving the airline per year, a number slated to increase with the upcoming retirements at the company. At ABX Air, the problem isn’t much better, with an estimated 30 percent of recent hires jumping ship and joining other airlines.
With a pilot recruitment and retention problem, the remaining Boeing 767 Freighters scheduled to be delivered to the airlines could be sitting idle without crews, as was the case when an Atlas flight was stuck in Anchorage for half a day until a crew could legally fly it. While this doesn’t affect the packages, as they can’t complain about delays, pilots, including Russo, worry that a potential backlog will hurt Amazon and its customers if packages aren’t delivered on time.
Pay and Benefits
Although pilots get to travel the world and enjoy free travel benefits, pay scales and other benefits are still a huge factor in choosing an airline to work for. Pilots are claiming that Amazon is putting pressure on cargo airlines to do more with less, including with pilot salaries. According to Russo, top pay for a 12-year captain at Atlas, the highest scale achievable at the company, is less than what a second-year first officer makes at FedEx Express.
At ABX Air, another airline contracted by Amazon Air, the pay isn’t much better as a 12-year captain at ABX only makes around $50 more per hour than a second-year first officer at FedEx and a first-year captain at FedEx makes nearly $30 more than a top tier captain, according to Airline Pilot Central.
For pilots like Russo, a 14-year veteran of Atlas flying the Boeing 747 from the airline’s base in Chicago, there’s no place higher to climb. Although Russo’s quad engine 747 might climb to the upper altitudes on a daily basis, his salary is stuck in a holding pattern, which is what he believes is driving people away from the airline and sacrificing their seniority for a fresh start at a new airline.
Following the Colgan Air crash of 2009 in Buffalo, NY, the Federal Aviation Administration adopted new rules for pilots that mandated rest periods to combat fatigue. However, Russo says that these federally-mandated guidelines aren’t sustainable over multiple days and a continually grueling schedule can have adverse effects on pilots that aren’t resolved in one night’s rest, even if it is legally allowed.
Atlas pilots operate a 17-day monthly rotation that is extendable to 20 in case of delays while their sister airline, Southern Air, operates a 20-day extendable rotation. While the pilots don’t believe more regulation on combating fatigue is needed, they do believe that the Part 117 “cargo cutout” needs to be reversed.
Part 117, a recent set of regulations regarding crew rest and duty periods, is the standard for all U.S. airlines but is not legally applicable to cargo airlines thanks to the so-called cargo cutout. However, cargo airlines such as FedEx Express have adopted these standards, going beyond what is legally required of them. Airlines such as Atlas have not, pushing the limits on what is safe, although legal.
Atlas and most other air cargo carriers operate under Part 121 standards, the same as any major U.S. airline. However, the additional safety measures outlined in Part 117 are not in place for cargo carriers, leaving them at the discretion of the companies to adopt. And while Russo believes there are no intentional or widespread Part 121 violations, most pilots will tell you that what is legal, isn’t always safe.
Making Air Cargo Great Again
With strikes and delays not enough to convince the cargo carriers that a change needs to be made, the pilots of Amazon Air hope that a recent critic of Amazon can help, the President of the United States Donald J. Trump.
On Monday, a group of pilots from each of the three airlines will go to Washington, D.C. and stand in protest at the White House to demand President Trump intervene on their behalf. The president has criticized the ecommerce company and its CEO Jeff Bezos before and the group believes that Trump will be sympathetic to their cause, partially due to the recent conflict between the president and Amazon, but also because of the president’s promise to protect American jobs.
“U.S. cargo pilots are critical to our economy and the rise of e-commerce, but the standards that have made our piloting community the envy of the world are under siege from companies like Amazon driving a race to the bottom,” said Atlas Air Captain Robert Kirchner. “President Trump has stood up to Amazon before, and we hope he will join us in standing up to the e-commerce giant now in telling Mr. Bezos it’s time to support good jobs in the U.S. airline industry.”
The protest at the White House will also mark the beginning of a new ad campaign around Washington to pressure the president and lawmakers to take the side of the pilots and reinforce the high standards that the U.S. aviation industry is built on. By taking a stand with Amazon, the group also believes that it will reduce its influence and allow for fairer contracts between all logistics companies and Amazon.
Effecting the Air Cargo Industry as a Whole
While Amazon isn’t the catalyst for the alleged management problems at these cargo airlines, it seems that the desire to appease Amazon is driving some of these issues and sweeping them under the rug. By entering into contracts with poor terms for pilots, the airlines are driving down standards for the entire industry and although critics say Amazon and its scope and influence is pressure the airlines to do so, it’s ultimately the airlines themselves that agree to enter into the contract.
According to Russo and other pilots, however, the cargo airlines are making promises to Amazon that they can’t keep or can only keep at the expense of its pilots, which Russo claims isn’t fair to pilots or consumers. Russo also believes the company is favoring Amazon above other customers, including the United States Military, and pilots are getting the short end of the stick.
While both Atlas Air and ATSG, the parent company of ABX Air and Air Transport International, didn’t respond for comment, Amazon stated that it doesn’t believe that the internal problems of the airlines it contracts with will have a meaningful effect on package deliveries, as the company sources multiple means of transportation to meet demand, and that the contracts entered into by the airlines are at their discretion.
A representative from Amazon also stated that the company hears about this issue during peak times for freight transport, but that it hasn’t experienced any delays to the level that is being claimed by the pilots. This also isn’t the first time that cargo pilots have fought against Amazon, as just last year the group sent a letter to President Trump and protested in front of the White House, following a court ruling that prevented them from striking during the holidays.
The biggest fear, it seems, among cargo pilots is Amazon’s increased investments in the air cargo industry, with the Seattle-based company making investments at Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport, Amazon Air’s main hub. With Amazon’s desire to control its own logistics, as shown with the creation of Amazon Air, pilots worry that if Amazon buys a cargo airline, it could implement even worse standards.
However, the group hopes that President Trump’s recent bouts with Amazon’s Bezos will benefit them and give the president ammunition for his battle to take the company down a notch in support of the American worker.