Amazon Prime Air Pilots Make Noise in Seattle

Contract pilots for Amazon Prime Air are taking their case directly to the Seattle-based ecommerce giant, threatening a strike over wages, working conditions and turnover that could seriously disrupt the fledgling service.

Amazon Prime Air, which has its principal hub at the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport, just began regular operations this month.

Pilots working for Atlas Air Worldwide Holdings Air Transport Services Group, represented by the Teamsters, showed up at Amazon’s annual shareholder meeting today to air their grievances over pay and churn amidst a growing pilot shortage. The two carriers are contracted to fly 40 planes for Amazon Prime Air by 2018. Amazon has warrants to purchase up to a 20% stake each in Atlas and ATSG.

“Amazon is at the heart of our carriers’ vision for the future and that’s why it’s our responsibility as pilots to alert shareholders about the underlying issues at our airlines that could spell trouble for our relationship,” said Atlas pilot Marvin Tate in a release. “AAWW has made huge commitments to Amazon even though we’re losing dozens of pilots a month and are not able to replace them. We urge Amazon investors and executives to heed the voices of those on the frontlines, and encourage its contracted carriers to help build a successful partnership that works for customers, pilots and our businesses alike.”

The airlines for their part see the union action as grandstanding in an attempt to influence contract negotiations. Amazon referred inquiries to the individual airline partners.

While a pilot for Atlas Air told CNBC that the company lost 92 pilots to date this year, twice as many as in 2016, an Atlas spokesperson said it is adding pilots faster and meeting all its commitments, including to Amazon.

“Questions about the working environment of our partners is best addressed by them,” said Amazon spokesman Jim Billimoria. “All of our delivery providers must abide by our supplier code of conduct and we take seriously any allegation that a delivery provider is not meeting those requirements and expectations. That said, we are pleased with our partners’ performance and their continued ability to scale for our customers.”

Another one of Amazon’s air freight partners, ABX Air, went on strike last fall until ordered back by a judge. As a result, Amazon withheld business from ABX until it could be assured they wouldn’t strike again, according to Recode.

MCM Musings: Any kind of a work stoppage by the pilots flying for Amazon could put a serious crimp in its nascent air freight operations, designed to handle excess overnight shipment capacity, especially during peak season. But these types of actions are fairly common in the heat of contract negotiations and could blow over quickly if a settlement is reached. While there have been periodic media reports alleging less-than-ideal working conditions inside Amazon’s vast network of non-union fulfillment centers, they haven’t caused a blip in the company’s operations. A grounding of Amazon Prime Air flights, however, could have larger ramifications in terms of service levels and the vaunted loyalty of Prime members.

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