- There’s been an uptick of short-notice sick leave among the pilots who deliver your Amazon Prime packages, according to a Friday ruling from the US Court of Appeals in Washington, DC.
- These pilots work for Atlas Air Worldwide Holdings, a cargo airline that contracts to Amazon, the US military, DHL, and others.
- Union leadership for the pilots “categorically” denies encouraging the pilots to call in sick, saying that increased pressures at Atlas instead destroyed the pilots’ health and ratcheted up their stress levels.
- In court affidavits provided to Business Insider, pilots described why they took sick leave with short notice. One said the Boeing 737 he was assigned to work in was “well over 100 degrees” and he ended up “violently ill.” Atlas later depicted his short-notice sick leave as a work-stoppage activity.
- The pilots and their employer have been in a 3-1/2-year battle over securing a new work contract. Their pay is considerably lower than what pilots at cargo carriers like UPS and FedEx earn.
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The pilots who fly some Amazon packages are locked in a contentious battle with the airline that employs them over union negotiations, and the fight is getting ugly.
Pilots at Atlas Air Worldwide Holdings, a Purchase, New York-based airliner company that leases 22 of its 114 aircraft to Amazon, have been fighting for 3 1/2 years to secure a new work contract. The labour relations are so shaky that Amazon has threatened to cut its business with Atlas.
The efforts of Atlas pilots to push on their employers for a new contract have reached the US Court of Appeals in Washington, DC – one of the most important courts in America.
On Friday, the DC Circuit ruled in favour of Atlas when it unanimously upheld a preliminary injunction against Teamsters Local 1224 and the union’s efforts to push the pilots’ employer on a new work contract. This ruling was previously reached at the district-court level.
One apparent tactic the court called out in its 27-page ruling was the uptick of pilots calling in sick with little notice. Atlas said pilots were illegally pressuring the company by calling in sick hours before scheduled flight times, while pilots said the short-notice sick calls were a result of increased overtime and stress at work.
Same-day sick calls jumped by 42%
Pilots don’t fly every day, and usually they call several days in advance to get sick leave. Calling the day of a flight can destabilize flight schedules and requires the company to quickly find a replacement.
Before contract negotiations started in January 2016, according to information Atlas presented to the DC Circuit, only 14.4% of sick calls from pilots were made the same day pilots were scheduled to fly. That number jumped to 20.4% in the period of February 2016 to September 2017. Sick calls made at least two days in advance dropped as well.
Though the share of same-day calls jumped, sick calls in general did not change through this period.
“(We) categorically reject the fact that that that we did anything to influence the number of sick calls or the type of sick calls,” the Atlas Air pilot Daniel Wells, the president of Teamsters Local 1224, told Business Insider.
Atlas says the pilots’ union “went beyond merely reminding pilots not to work sick.” On the day that Teamsters notified its members of contract renegotiations, according to the court case:
“The host of a CBA Chat told viewers he had called in sick because of a high fever, then pulled a hot water bottle from under his shirt. The Chat closed with this reminder: ‘It’s your CBA. They signed it. You use it.'”
Wells, however, said the increased stress pilots had during 2016 and 2017 – including more inexperienced pilots and increased pressure to take on additional overtime – most likely drove more and more pilots to call in sick.
“When those schedules are completely thrown about and turned about on a daily basis, it definitely has, not only a psychological but a purely medical impact on our crew members,” Wells said. “The increased stress and tempo of the operation absolutely leads to an increase in sick calls, no question about it. That’s a proven fact across the industry, and there was no direction whatsoever from us to do any such thing.”
These pilots fly for Amazon, which leases 20 of Atlas’ 112 aircraft, as well as the US military, DHL Express, and Nippon Cargo Airlines. Amazon is Atlas’ largest customer, owning 20% of Atlas’ stock warrants. Amazon is also authorised to designate a nonvoting observer to Atlas’ board.
Amazon, which does not directly employ these pilots and contracts their labour through Atlas Air and other carriers, had no comment on the DC Circuit ruling.
Some pilots say they called out sick because of taxing working conditions
In several affidavits provided to Business Insider by the union, pilots described why they took off sick leave with short notice. Atlas had highlighted the pilot’s cases to the DC Circuit as evidence that the pilots’ union had intentionally pushed for a sick-out, even though the pilots who made these early sick calls did not face disciplinary actions at any point.
One pilot, whose name was redacted, said the Boeing 737 in which he was assigned to work lacked air-conditioning in late July, driving the cockpit’s temperature “well over 100 degrees.” As he described to the DC Circuit:
“After about ten minutes in the cockpit working on my pre-flight duties and sweating profusely, I got very nauseous. I therefore decided to step outside to see if that helped alleviate my nausea. It did help a little bit, but as soon as I got back upstairs and in the cockpit, which was still extremely hot, I began to feel sick again. After a few minutes I became violently ill in the lavatory, where I was projectile vomiting. The captain made sure I didn’t need an ambulance then I called in sick for the flight. The company made sure that I received transport to the hotel and offered to send a doctor if I wanted one.”
According to the affidavits, Atlas later depicted this same-day sick call as one that was motivated by union-driven work-stoppage activities. The company, however, had not previously punished the pilot for the sick call.
“Having felt like I had spewed my entire stomach out in the aircraft lavatory and still feeling the effects of the extreme heat, there was no way that I could have safely performed my operating duties,” the pilot said in the affidavits. “I did not call out sick on account of pilot or peer pressure, as part of a plan or plot by the Atlas pilots, instructions from the Union, or pressure from the Union or any of its representatives.”
Another Atlas pilot, whose name was redacted, was operating a flight from the US to Germany with 340 passengers on board. He said in the affidavit provided to Business Insider that several unexpected schedule changes occurred prior to the flight and he was not able to get adequate rest.
The pilot called in fatigue. “Until Plaintiffs (Atlas) filed the complaint in this case, Atlas has never questioned the legitimacy of my fatigue callout,” the pilot said in the affidavit. “If Atlas thought that I had intentionally falsified my callout, it could have initiated both counseling and disciplinary proceedings against me.”
He added: “How (Atlas Air senior vice president of flight operations) Jeff Carlson can now hold this fatigue call against me and the Union is beyond me. To me, it seems like he is directly going against his own, published guidance, promoting unsafe operations.”
Atlas Air Worldwide CEO Bill Flynn told Business Insider in a statement that the case was not steeped in any individual case but rather was centered on “the significant spike in fatigue calls,” of which he said many “were factually questionable – and supported by comparative data.”
“Compounding this was the heavy volume of communications from Union Leaders to pilots encouraging them to not fly sick or fatigued in the context of labour negotiations,” Flynn said in the statement.
Ultimately, he noted, the DC Circuit unanimously upheld the preliminary injunction from lower courts to halt Teamsters from encouraging workers to pressure Atlas into negotiating a new work contract.
A lengthy, contentious legal battle for a new contract
Atlas Air Worldwide has been locked in a contentious collective-bargaining-agreement battle since January 2016 with its pilots, who are represented by Teamsters. The pilots are in two company departments owned by Atlas Air Worldwide: Atlas Air and Polar Air Cargo Worldwide. The contract sets pilots’ wages and other crucial work rules for at least five years.
Contract negotiations have stretched halfway into their third year. Pilot union negotiations are often lengthy – FedEx’s most recent pilot labour negotiations lasted two years, while UPS’ went on for 3 1/2 years.
In Atlas’ official contract-negotiations information website the company says that following its acquisition of Southern Air in 2016, the pilot union has not followed the merger provisions that would result in a joint collective bargaining agreement for Atlas and Southern pilots. Union leadership said the agreement, negotiated by arbitration, would hamper the group’s ability to negotiate better pay and working conditions.
“Had the Union Leaders simply followed the terms of the contract, pilots would have had a substantially increased total compensation package by now,” an Atlas Air Worldwide representative told Business Insider in a statement.
Atlas pilots make considerably less than their peers at other airlines
A shortage of pilots has recently forced massive pay bumps at airlines like Alaska, FedEx, and Delta. But because the contract for Atlas pilots has not been renewed since 2016, they have not seen a pay raise since in more than three years.
Pilots flying for Atlas have told Business Insider the lack of pay bumps has led to subpar new applicants to the airline and the loss of experienced pilots.
“It’s having the very obvious impact of causing the company to not be able to maintain an adequate supply of pilots to expand, let alone even hold down, their current operation,” Wells told Business Insider in July.
Atlas first officers with the maximum level of experience flying Boeing 767s earn $US125 an hour. At UPS and FedEx, that same level earns, respectively, $US219 and $US222 an hour.
Captains at Atlas with the maximum level of experience flying Boeing 767s earn $US179 an hour. FedEx captains with the same stature earn $US313 an hour, and $US309 an hour at UPS.
“There is no standard compensation package in the aviation industry – is true in both the passenger and air cargo segments,” an Atlas representative told Business Insider. “Carriers have different business models – compensation packages reflect the nature of those models.”
The person added:
“We are committed to negotiating a contract for our pilots that pays them competitive ‘at market’ rates. The market is based on companies with similar business models, revenue streams, workforce size, and operating models. We have a dramatically different business model and revenue stream, and do not compete with FedEx and UPS. We are a $US3 billion company, with a pilot workforce of 2,000. FedEx and UPS are much larger in terms of revenues and work force. We compete with a separate set of competitors who also don’t pay at the same rates as FedEx and UPS because of their size, revenue streams and business model.”
But, as one Atlas Air pilot pointed out on Twitter, Atlas makes much more per employee than its more famous package carriers. According to Fidelity’s stock-comparison tool, Atlas earns 85 cents of revenue per employee – compared with 15 cents at UPS and FedEx.
Again, you don't know the industry numbers. Here are AAWW FDX UPS compared. Atlas can afford industry wages for the same work. Done commenting. pic.twitter.com/BWfb9VIeer
— The Pilots of Atlas (@AtlasAirPilots) July 8, 2019