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Published April 11, 2019 in The Washington Post

Durham drivers vote to join Teamsters 38

The Amazon Air Pilots Who Deliver Your Parcels are Prepared to Strike

By Abha Bhattarai and Kevin Williams

Amazon has become a retail powerhouse in part because of its promise of two-day delivery on millions of items. But now some of the pilots who transport the company’s packages are speaking out against what they describe as low wages, shoddy maintenance and stalled contract negotiations.

Roughly two dozen pilots in crisp white uniforms picketed on a busy thoroughfare near the Greater Cincinnati Northern Kentucky International Airport on Thursday, calling for better pay and benefits, and less erratic schedules. They held signs that said “Amazon: Driving down living standards of U.S. pilots” while passing motorists honked. The protest, organized by the Airline Professionals Association Teamsters Local 1224, comes weeks after an Atlas Air flight carrying cargo for Amazon crashed in Texas, killing all three people on board.

“Work has exponentially increased," said Mark Bly, who has flown for Atlas Air for 20 years and says he hasn’t received a raise in nearly a decade. “It was once a sleepy carrier. Now there is more work than ever.

Bly begins working before dawn and said he sometimes clocks in 18-hour days. The pilots, who work for three airlines that serve Amazon, said they are paid less than half the industry average and are frequently booked on last-minute flights during their days off. That, they say, has led to high turnover rates and concerns about fatigue and burnout. More than 60 percent of pilots who fly for three carriers -- Air Atlas, Southern Air and ABX Air -- said they are looking for work at competitors like UPS and FedEx, according to a union survey.

“You’ll be flying from Los Angeles to Narita [Japan], and all of a sudden, it’s ‘Actually, we also need you to operate to Hong Kong, then to Delhi, and back to Hong Kong before you can come back home,'" said Daniel Wells, a pilot for Air Atlas and president of the Airlines Professional Association. “It’s a continual shuffle, and it really wears you down." (Amazon Air flies only domestically.)
Air Transport Services Group, the parent company of ABX Air, said it follows “the highest standards of safety."

“Our airlines are in compliance with the rules of their current Collective Bargaining Agreements, including work rules,” spokesman Paul Cunningham said in an email." Regarding staffing, [the company] has had no issues in finding qualified candidates to support its growth."

A spokeswoman for Atlas Air Worldwide, which also oversees Southern Air, said the company “values our pilots and is eager to increase their pay."

“Had union leaders followed the Collective Bargaining Agreement, the pilots would have had a new contract -- and a raise -- by now,” she said. "We remain committed to working collaboratively with union leadership to complete an agreement for our pilots.”

Although Amazon does not directly employ the pilots, union members said they hoped the protests would shed light on worker grievances. As part of a 2016 deal, Amazon is leasing 20 Boeing 767s from Atlas Air that it brands as Amazon Air, and has an option to buy up to 40 percent of the carrier.

“We would like Amazon to pressure the company to negotiate, and we would also like them to be aware of some of the operational issues,” said Mike Griffith, a pilot for Air Atlas.

Amazon Air, the freight delivery arm of the retail giant, has branded planes that are operated by a handful of carriers, including Air Transport International and Atlas Air. The company has invested heavily in its facilities at Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport, where it plans to break ground on a $1.5 billion hub next month.

Griffith said planes often fly with systems that are not fully operational. Ongoing maintenance issues are deferred.

“Some flights have 10 stickers of deferral, and it didn’t used to be that way,” he said. Also, the maintenance is outsourced and sometimes logbooks and record-keeping is lax all in the name of “keeping the metal moving.”

An Atlas spokeswoman said, the company’s “fleet and workforce meet or exceed all government safety standards.”

Griffith said there are about 2,000 pilots between the three carriers to make up the Amazon Air fleet. If a federal judge decides that Atlas Air violated a clause in the union’s contract, that would open the door to a strike, something that Griffith says the pilots hope to avoid but are prepared to do.

“All roads lead to a contract, whether it is one that we want or one that is imposed, is what we don’t know. But we are ready to strike,” he said. “Amazon Prime stops if we strike.”

An Amazon spokeswoman said “we work with a variety of carriers and are confident in our ability to serve customers.”

The Seattle-based tech giant, which employs 250,000 U.S. workers, as well as a number of temporary employees and contractors, has frequently come under fire for its pay and working conditions. Late last year, the company raised its hourly starting wage to $15, and chief executive Jeffrey Bezos on Thursday challenged competitors to do the same. (Bezos also owns The Washington Post.)

Last month, an Amazon warehouse worker in Staten Island said he had been fired after after asking for safer working conditions and trying to unionize. The employee, Rashad Long, told news outlets he sometimes worked 12-hour shifts, six days a week, with few breaks, and has filed a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board. An Amazon spokeswoman told The Washington Post in March that Long’s “allegations are false."

Griffith says that the average salary of a pilot with the rank of captain is $300,000 at FedEx and $350,000 at UPS. By comparison, he said, pilots who deliver for Amazon make 40 to 60 percent less than that.