- Pilots for three airlines that operate much of Amazon’s Air delivery service are set to picket Amazon’s annual meeting on Wednesday.
- The pilots’ union says the companies have purposefully stalled negotiating a new contract for more than three years.
- Pilots who spoke to Business Insider said their worried another accident – like that involving an Atlas Air jet in February (no cause has yet been determined) – could happen again soon as crews are stretched thin.
- Atlas Air, in a statement to Business Insider accused the pilots of spreading misinformation.
- An Amazon spokesperson said if the companies do not come to an agreement with the pilots’ union, it could result in a change of its allocation for aircraft.
As Amazon investors convene for the e-commerce giant’s annual stockholder meeting, pilots responsible for many of the company’s overnight package deliveries are sounding the alarm about potential safety issues.
The pilots, represented by the Airline Professionals Association, Teamsters Local 1224, say the cargo airlines Atlas Air, Southern Air, and Air Transport Service Group – the three of which provide many of Amazon Air’s daily operations – have dragged their feet on negotiating a new contract. As a result, the pilots say, staffing is being stretched thin and talented recruits are opting to fly for competitors instead.
“Now, after several years of losing pilots to airlines like FedEx, UPS, and Delta, we find ourselves basically with a staffing crisis,” Michael Russo, a 15-year veteran of Atlas Air, told Business Insider in an interview.
“The operation is being stretched thin due to this mind-boggling expansion that I don’t think we can keep up with, but the company executives seem to just mislead Amazon by saying ‘yeah, we can keep all of these aeroplanes flying. I don’t know how we’re going to do it.”
The pilots’ union and the company have been at odds since early 2016 when the two groups first began to negotiate a new contract. Now more than three years later, there’s still no contract on the table. Because of federal labour laws, pilots can’t go on strike without presenting their case before a judge or being released by a national mediation board.
According to Robert Kirchner, executive council chairman for Atlas Air’s APA members, pay at the airline lags way behind competitors, which is making hiring hard.
“From July 2018 through March of 2019, they hired over 300 pilots but only grew by four,” he said of Atlas’s recruiting struggles. “We pay 60% less than FedEx, UPS or any of the US major airlines, our working conditions are much worse, and there’s no retirement here. The most common call I get from pilots is ‘Gee, I really like the flying here, but I don’t like the company management and I can’t afford to stay because the benefits for me and my family at other airlines are too much better.”
None of their complaints are new.
In February, an Amazon Air plane operated by Atlas Air cashes in Houston, killing all three people on board. In the days and weeks before the crash, several pilots told Business Insider’s Rachel Premack they that felt the accident was inevitable.
“I don’t know what the cause of that is, or what it will turn out to be,” Captain Kirchner said of the crash, “but we’re really worried about the safety here because of the day-to-day operational problems we see, which can’t be good for safety.”
An Amazon spokesperson told Business Insider that if Atlas cannot find common ground with the pilots’ union, it could shift its plan for aircraft allocations going forward. Here’s the company’s statement:
We are disappointed with the current state of relations between Atlas and their pilot union. Neither side seems willing to work towards a reasonable compromise. This is contrary to the interests of Atlas, the pilots, and the customers they both serve. We repeatedly hear claims made by the union regarding Atlas’s service for Amazon that when investigated are factually inaccurate. The continued inability of Atlas and their pilot union to resolve these negotiations could result in a change to the allocation of our current and future aircraft. We have an obligation to deliver to our customers, and so do they.
And while the company’s name is only attached through a business partnership, Kirchner said the retail giant likely has more pull into the cargo carriers operations than it’s letting on.
“What Amazon is going to say is ‘that’s our contractor and we don’t have anything to do with their operation,'” he said. “That’s not true. They have a complete shadow flight operations system set up in the headquarters. They’re exercising control and making an operational decision throughout the Atlas network.”
A spokesperson for Atlas, in response to a request for comment from Business Insider, accused the pilots of spreading misinformation:
We are proud of our strong and growing workforce of more than 2,000 pilots, and we are eager to reward them with a new contract and increased pay. These protest efforts are common tactics that are often used by unions to spread misinformation and gain leverage in contract negotiations. The fact is Atlas is committed to its pilots. We have an uncompromised commitment to the safety and well-being of our pilots – and our practices meet or exceed all regulatory requirements and industry standards. Together with our pilots, we are committed to the success of our customers, and have worked hard to earn a strong record of delivering trusted service. It’s time to put pilots first, ahead of protests, and get to a new contract.
That doesn’t sit well with Captain Russo, who’s looking forward to picketing once again on Wednesday as he did in April when pilots held a similar demonstration.
“We just have to keep shining light on the way that they’re doing business and really trying to subvert as I said our legal right to negotiate and a new contract,” he said.
Following the publication of the story, an Atlas Air spokesperson shared another statement, taking issue with many of the claims mentioned by pilots in this story. Here’s the statement in full:
The assertions made by Union leaders about Atlas’s workforce and customers are patently false and highly inaccurate.
Atlas continues to successfully recruit and retain pilots to meet the staffing needs based on customer demand – even in an industry-wide pilot shortage. In fact, our pilot workforce has doubled from 1,000 to 2,000 in the last four years.
Atlas’ pilots are our pilots – not Amazon’s. Atlas pilots proudly serve the air cargo and passenger charter needs of a broad array of customers, with Amazon accounting for just 10 per cent of our company’s revenue.
The union asserted that Amazon has a “shadow flight operations system set up in the headquarters.” This is false. Contrary to what the Union suggests, our customers, including Amazon, play no role governing our operations or setting work rules. Atlas and Southern are certificated air carriers that maintain operational control over their own operations in strict accordance with FAA regulations. Atlas operates nearly 60,000 flights a year, and we are responsible for the crews that we hire, the training we provide, and the aircraft we maintain.
We are heartbroken by the loss of Flight 3591 that claimed the lives of three of our friends and colleagues, and we are disappointed that the Union has chosen to link their negotiation tactics to this tragic accident. The fact is that safety comes first, always. Our commitment to safety is the foundation of everything we do at Atlas and Southern. We thank our dedicated crew of over 2,000 pilots and over 1,500 ground staff for sharing this commitment and putting it into practice every day.
Business Insider Emails & Alerts
Site highlights each day to your inbox.