In a survey, pilots for one of the companies Amazon has contracted for air- cargo services complain about pay, attrition and a looming pilot shortage.
The pilots who work for an air-cargo contractor scheduled to become a big part of Amazon.com’s budding air force are chafing under what they say are lackluster compensation packages, attrition and a looming pilot shortage — and they want the tech giant to know all about it.
On Wednesday, the union representing pilots working at Atlas Air Worldwide is releasing a survey of more than 1,000 respondents, or about two-thirds of the company’s roster, that shows tanking morale. Also on Wednesday, Atlas Air pilots are expected to demonstrate in front of Amazon’s South Lake Union headquarters.
Demonstrations and claims of woe are not unusual in the context of bitter contract negotiations between pilots and their management. But it’s a new scene for Amazon, which has sought to exert more control over its logistics by having third-party contractors Atlas and Air Transport Services Group (ATSG) operate 20 planes each on its behalf. The effort is dubbed “Prime Air.”
For the e-commerce and technology behemoth, it underscores the challenges of its first steps into the world of airfreight — a foray that could become deeper if Amazon chooses to acquire parts of ATSG and Atlas, according to options specified in the deal struck earlier this year.
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Amazon’s big name recognition and humongous transportation needs have made it a fulcrum in high-stakes pilot-contract negotiations, particularly during the busy holiday season.
Before Thanksgiving, pilots with a unit of ATSG went on a strike that they claimed would result in “delays and disruptions” for Amazon customers just when they shop the most. The pilots, who were protesting what they said were stressful working conditions and intentional understaffing, were ordered back to work by a judge the following day.
ATSG pilots said at the time the company was already flying 14 planes for Amazon. An Atlas pilot says that so far that company is flying one plane for Prime Air.
In the case of Atlas, pilots and management are at a standstill in negotiations over a new labor agreement.
The Atlas pilots’ union, Airline Professionals Association Teamsters Local 1224, says its members are paid much less and have longer working hours than pilots at UPS or FedEx. The union also complained that Atlas has refused to negotiate.
The trouble stems in part from Atlas’ recent acquisition of Southern Air, which had a different labor contract with its pilots. The Atlas pilots’ union says the company is trying to merge its contract with Southern Air’s, which it considers disadvantageous.
In a statement, Atlas Air said it “respects an individual’s right to express his or her opinion.”
“We will continue our dialogue with the union under the terms and conditions of our contract to reach a new joint collective-bargaining agreement incorporating the merger with Southern Air,” the company said.
The pilots are trying to win Amazon, which declined to comment for this story, to their cause.
Robert Kirchner, an Atlas pilot and executive council chairman of the union, says low pay and poor working conditions are fueling attrition that might aggravate the impact of a looming pilot shortage already felt around the industry.
He said a hiring push by Atlas last year was greatly dampened by the departure of more than a hundred pilots.
“We want to get not only Amazon’s attention, but the public’s attention,” Kirchner said in an interview. “We’d like to see this fixed; we’d like to see Atlas prosper.”
The Teamsters Local 1224 survey was answered by 897 Atlas pilots and 143 pilots working for Southern Air. (There are about 1,400 pilots on the Atlas contract and 300 on the Southern contract.)
Asked whether their carrier had enough pilots to meet the long-term needs of Amazon or of DHL, another large contractor, 69.3 percent of Atlas pilots said they “completely” disagreed. About 19.4 percent said they “somewhat” disagreed.
When asked whether they planned to apply to another airline for employment in the coming year, 65.3 percent of Atlas pilots said yes. So did 71.1 percent of Southern pilots.
As for the question of whether morale was high among the pilot staff, 68.9 percent of Atlas pilots and 69.1 percent of Southern pilots “completely” disagreed.