- Amazon Air pilots are picketing the company’s annual meeting on Wednesday, saying that low pay and benefits are leading to higher turnover and potential safety issues.
- The union representing the pilots of three carriers said they have been without a contract since 2016 and the companies are dragging their feet.
- Amazon, in response to a question from Business Insider, threatened to change its “allocation” of cargo if the issues are not resolved.
Since 2016, pilots who operate cargo flights for three companies on behalf of Amazon Air have been without a contract.
Now, in the face of more protests at the e-commerce giant’s annual shareholder meeting on Wednesday, the company has threatened to take its business elsewhere if a new agreement cannot be reached.
The pilots, represented by the Airline Professionals Association, say the cargo airlines Atlas Air, Southern Air, and Air Transport Service Group – which are the three airlines that perform 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.
In response to a question from Business Insider about those pilots’ fears that more incidents, like the plane crash in Houston earlier this year, could occur because of short staffing and inexperienced pilots, an Amazon spokesperson said it may rethink its future investments and carriers.
“We are disappointed with the current state of relations between Atlas and their pilot union,” a spokesperson said. “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,” the spokesperson continued (emphasis added).
That sentence is key in Amazon’s statement. In its agreement with Atlas, Amazon has the option to “at its discretion” place up to 15 more 737-800 freighter aircraft into service by 2021, according to regulatory filings. It’s not clear exactly what changes might result from the company’s allocation changes, but it could have a significant influence on Atlas’ revenue and operations.
Pilots are sceptical that Amazon’s relationship with Atlas and the other two carriers is on-paper only. In an interview with Business Insider, the executive council chairman for Atlas Air’s pilots’ union said he suspects the company plays a larger role in operations than it leads 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.”
An Atlas Air spokesperson accused the union and its pilots of spreading misinformation.
“These protest efforts are common tactics that are often used by unions to spread misinformation and gain leverage in contract negotiations,” the spokesperson said. “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.”
Another pilot, Capt. Michael Russo, said the company’s statements to that effect won’t deter efforts to fight for better pay and benefits in a new contract. After all, this problem has been around for years and doesn’t appear to be ending anytime soon. 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.
“Now, after several years of losing pilots to airlines like FedEx, UPS, and Delta, we find ourselves basically with a staffing crisis,” he said. “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.”
Following the original publication of this article, an Atlas Air spokesperson sent along another statement, citing what they said was more “inaccurate” information from the pilots and their union:
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 less than 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.
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