Pilots working for airlines that transport packages for Amazon are not happy — and many are considering quitting, a survey found

Some pilots feel ‘disenfranchised,’ according to one captain. Stephen Brashear / Stringer / Getty Images
  • Amazon Air relies on cargo airlines like Atlas Air and ABX Air to transport its packages.
  • But pilots from those airlines say they’re getting fed up with pay and benefits that they say are below industry standards.
  • A survey of pilots at those carriers, conducted by the Teamsters Local 1224 union of the Airline Professionals Association, found that 60% of respondents said they plan to leave their current airline.

Pilots working for the group of airlines responsible for making Amazon Air deliveries aren’t happy, a recent union survey found.

And a lot of them are considering leaving the airlines that Amazon Air relies on, according to a recent survey from the Teamsters Local 1224 union of the Airline Professionals Association.

The survey, which wrapped up on Monday and featured responses from more than 1,200 pilots, found that 60% said they plan to leave their current airline. The survey was sent out to all 2,170 crew members at Atlas Air, Southern Air, and ABX Air, via email.

These pilots don’t work for Amazon directly.

Amazon Air is a brand that operates through cargo airline subsidiaries of Atlas Air Worldwide and the Air Transport Services Group, including Atlas Air and ABX Air.

As part of the arrangement between these companies and the tech giant, pilots from these airlines operate Amazon Air’s branded aircraft in order to make deliveries. Those airlines also cater to DHL, a division of the German logistics company Deutsche Post DHL. Southern Air, which is a subsidiary of Atlas Air Worldwide, flies exclusively for DHL.

Switching airlines can set back a pilot’s career

This isn’t the first rumble from the pilots, though. There have been a number of strikes and protests. But the fact that so many pilots are considering quitting is still striking, according to Captain Robert Kirchner, Atlas pilot and executive council chairman of Teamsters Local 1224.

That’s because the airline industry operates on a seniority-based system, he said.

“When a captain leaves here after 10 or 15 years, he or she is leaving 15 years behind,” Kirchner told Business Insider. “They have to start all over again at the carrier they go to.”

Kirchner said even though a captain “may be the most experienced person at the airline,” they must start from the bottom when they join a new carrier. Moving around can therefore be detrimental to a pilot’s career.

Kirchner said quitting an airline could amount to a “big sacrifice” and that he’s seen captains with 18 years of experience walk away from Atlas.

“If you’re a doctor or a business person, then you can go to another company and get your current job or higher,” he said. “In the airline industry, you can’t do that. There’s less pay, you don’t get the schedules you want, you don’t get the vacation you want, until you start getting higher up.”

Pilots are feeling ‘disenfranchised’

Kirchner said Atlas’ partnership with Amazon brought about an expansion that the airline couldn’t keep up with. Amazon, which owns a 20% stake in Atlas and is one of its most important clients, could fix the problem by telling the airline to up its standards, according to Kirchner.

A spokesperson for Amazon Air told Business Insider that questions about the working environment at Atlas Air, Southern Air, and ABX Air could be directed to the airlines themselves, and said the company was pleased with the carriers’ performance and ability to scale.

But Kirchner described an atmosphere of frustration and apathy among pilots.

“A lot of the pilots coming in here, because of that, feel disenfranchised and aren’t committed to the business or to the company,” Kirchner told Business Insider. “They say, ‘I’m only going to stay for a couple of years until I get my qualifications up. And then I’m going on to FedEx, UPS, United.'”

He said Atlas currently has a “tremendous turnover rate” because the airline offers salaries and benefits that pilots say are beneath the industry standard. He said that 72% of Atlas pilots have been with the carrier for less than five years.

When asked in the survey if they felt that morale was high among their fellow pilots, 86% of ABX pilots, 76% of Atlas pilots, and 51% of Southern pilots said they “strongly disagreed.”

“I’ve had crew members on my flights, and they will just come out and tell me that they really don’t care,” Kirchner said. “‘I don’t care about this company. I don’t care if it survives. I don’t care if Amazon’s packages get to where they’re supposed to go. I just don’t care.’ And that’s a sad situation.”

A spokesperson at Atlas Air Worldwide said the company valued its pilots’ right to express their opinions.

“The commentary from the pilot union, however, is part of an overall campaign to put public pressure on the company with respect to our next labour contract,” the spokesperson said. “The union’s campaign has included the dissemination of false and/or misleading statements.”

A spokesperson for the Air Transport Services Group said that the company appreciated its employees’ professionalism and dedication.

“ATSG’s airlines are currently at their target staffing levels, employing flight crews for all of the aircraft for which they are committed under commercial arrangements with their respective customers,” the spokesperson said.

Pilots worry about their airlines’ ability to recruit and retain talent

The survey also found that 80% of the pilots strongly disagreed when asked if they were happy with their pay and benefits, while 91% said they felt their airline’s pay and benefits didn’t meet industry standards.

Kirchner said about 100 pilots quit Atlas in 2015. That number jumped to 198 in 2017. This year, Kirchner estimated that the number would approach 300.

“They tried to hire 379 pilots in 2018,” he said. “They only got 285 to show up to class, which is unheard-of in the industry.”

At ABX, Atlas, and Southern, 81% to 87% of pilots reported that they strongly agreed that they were worried about their carrier “being able to recruit and retain experienced pilots.”

In the survey, 65% of respondents said they’d been asked to fly on their off-days in the past year. And Kirchner said Atlas pilots receive fewer vacations than pilots at their competitors when they begin working for the company.

“We’ve never seen this much flying on days off at the airline, which is further proof of how short they are in the pilot ranks,” Kirchner said.

Kirchner said he didn’t believe that the situation at Atlas Air or Air Transport Services would erode industry standards across the board. He singled out UPS and FedEx for providing their pilots with appropriate compensation and time off. And in the survey, 83% to 74% of respondents said they’d like to fly for FedEx or UPS.

“There’s nothing like experienced employees,” Kirchner said. “Companies like Amazon and DHL need on-time, reliable service – and we’re already seeing that deteriorate. As long as they keep turning a blind eye to this, the problem is going to get worse and worse and worse.”

Here’s the full statement from Atlas Air Worldwide:

“We value the service of our pilots and appreciate their right to express their opinions. The commentary from the pilot union, however, is part of an overall campaign to put public pressure on the company with respect to our next labour contract.

The union’s campaign has included the dissemination of false and/or misleading statements. It also included an illegal slowdown that the union was ordered to stop a year ago by the U.S. federal court in Washington, D.C. That injunction remains in place today.

As background, our business has grown substantially over the past several years, during which we have not only created hundreds of new pilot jobs but have also met our customer demands with highly reliable service. As our business continues to grow and develop, with opportunities to expand in existing and new markets, we continue to provide pilots opportunities for ongoing career growth and advancement.

We will continue to address work rules, pay and time off with our pilots as we work through our contract negotiations. We remain committed to negotiating one competitive collective-bargaining agreement for all of our pilots in accordance with the terms of our existing labour agreements, which recognises our pilots’ valued contributions.”

Here’s the full statement from the Air Transport Services Group:

“ATSG’s airlines are currently at their target staffing levels, employing flight crews for all of the aircraft for which they are committed under commercial arrangements with their respective customers.

We appreciate the professionalism and dedication of all of our employees in providing the best possible service to our customers, and we make every effort, every day, to make that service even better.”

Are you a pilot working at Atlas Air, Southern, Air, ABX Air, or another airline that counts Amazon as a client? Email [email protected]