Amazon was in a crisis as Christmas approached. Just in time for Christmas, the retailer was going to promote its deal of the day: the Amazon Kindle. The company's stock was low and it was located in Seattle. With the holiday shopping season in full swing, the parcel service was unwilling to divert more planes to appease it's increasingly demanding client. It looked like Amazon wouldn't be able to deliver its signature device to shoppers in its own backyard.
According to a former employee, the prospect of failure was intolerable for executives who were steeped in the doctrine of customer obsession. The nightmare of the previous Christmas, when a mass of packages landed late on the doorsteps of angry holiday shoppers, still haunted them. Ground transportation issues were to blame for the debacle. There was an air problem. In the previous year, Amazon built up its network of sortation centers to streamline delivery via trucks, but it still depended on FedEx andUPS to fly most of its packages around the US If the carriers couldn't keep up with demand, Amazon wouldn't be able to fulfill its promise to deliver any item to tens of millions of households within two days.
Dave Clark, then Amazon's head of worldwide operations, was worried about a second holiday season meltdown and ordered his transportation team to rustle up some airplanes fast. Scott Ruffin, a former marine logistics officer who handled procurement for the sortation centers, reached out to everyone he knew in the industry and helped charter planes so that they could fly to Seattle. Christmas was not lost. What about the year after that? Amazon wanted more control over its future. Its own air network was required.
Amazon is famous for its rapid pace of innovation and data driven efforts to squeeze every drop of productivity out of workers. The drivers are reported to operate on punishing schedules, the warehouse workers are timed to the second, and the US Occupational Safety and Health Administration has launched multiple probes into conditions at its warehouses. Its corporate values are a part of the company's culture. A former staffer says, "Jeff Bezos came down from the mountain with 12 leadership principles." They say that many decisions and actions do not need extensive study and that abias for action is needed.
The world of aviation isn't moving as fast as it used to. Cargo jets are expensive to convert and operate, making it hard to get airport space. One aviation veteran jokes that he knows how to become a millionaire in the air business. You start with $1 billion. Compliance with government regulations covering security, labor relations, and most important of all, safety, is required for running an air cargo service.
In a few years, Amazon has built its own large cargo service, which has helped it to decrease its reliance on FedEx andUPS. FedEx ended its contract with Amazon in 2019. There are seven air carriers that make more than 200 flights a day out of 71 airports and the company now owns 11 planes. Amazon Air flies orders from fulfillment centers to customers when items are too far away to be transported by truck. The Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport is one of the largest capital investments in the company's history. More than 75% of Americans live within 100 miles of an Amazon airport, according to a September report.
The story of Amazon Air shows the lengths the company will go to maintain its dominance. Unless you look up in the sky as an Amazon jet roars above, you won't see it. Some former employees say that these expensive, emissions-spewing airplanes are often used to ship goods that could be carried more cheaply and efficiently by road.
More than two dozen current and former Amazon Air employees spoke to WIRED about how the company launched an air service with the agility of a startup and the power of a megacorporation. An entrepreneurial culture that accomplished big things fast, but also toxic management, angry communities, and a singular focus on rapid growth, even if it came at the expense of efficiency, was described. Some employees used to joke that there was no landing gear.
The Middle Mile organization, which handled in-house transportation between Amazon's warehouses, was put together by Jeff Bezos to make some important decisions. The meeting began with attendees sitting around a table silently reading, according to a former employee. They looked at a white paper drawn up by the Middle Mile team which laid out potential operating models for an air network. One former employee put it this way: Should Amazon acquire and operate its own airline or build an organization to interact with an airline? The former option would give the company more control over the program, but it would take a long time to execute and be riskier. It would force Amazon to work with the FAA.
They posed questions after everyone finished. It seemed as if the sentiment was leaning towards acquisition until Bezos spoke, as he typically did in these meetings so as not to impede discussion. An employee remembers the man saying planes are planes. What will we do to distinguish? This was a quote from Bezos. He preferred to invest in initiatives where the company would not only be profitable, but disruptive.
The decision was made by Bezos to contract out. The FAA would certify carriers to pilot Amazon's leased planes to bring packages closer to customers. Multiple former employees say that Amazon was able to avoid directly employing pilots due to their union status. One airline was competing for business. The former Amazon Air employee said that if one of the pilot unions messes around, they can just give the business to the other ones.
Some departments at Amazon ran pilot programs with a few airports to test out different air transport models. The leaders of the Middle Mile team studied the model of outsourcing US flight operations to multiple small cargo airlines that provide clients with aircraft, crew, maintenance, and insurance, as well as asking the airlines to replicate that model for Amazon.
In 2016 Amazon signed long-term deals to lease 40 jets from two carriers. They were tasked with running Amazon Air. Soon after, planes with Amazon logos on the tail and the words "Prime Air" across the body began flying across the US.
The early days of the Amazon Air team were mostly staffed by people with little air cargo experience. A former staffer said that people can learn about aviation. Having people that embrace the Amazon leadership principles was more important. Some aviation industry veterans thought this approach was arrogant. The aviation veterans were seen as frustratingly cautious by some Amazon employees. A former Amazon Air leader said that people from FedEx and Boeing struggle to come to Amazon because they will take months and analyze to death before making decisions.
The team used out-of-the-way hangars from World War II to build package processing facilities at airports. The company put up a temporary structure called the "circus tent." We didn't try to make it perfect. A former employee says that the launch was perfect.
Air delivery was labeled a "defect" by some employees, a phrase that became a common refrain on the team. Ground shipping is more expensive than air shipping. According to researchers at the MIT Center for Transportation and Logistics, it is 10 times more carbon intensive than truck transport. Some staffers said that Amazon sold too many products to place each one within a two-day drive, while others said that with better forecasting and inventory placement, you wouldn't need so many planes. A former Amazon employee and cargo industry veteran claims that United Parcel Service saved hundreds of millions of dollars by connecting its ground network instead of buying more aircraft. Three former employees say that Amazon wanted to cover the entire country.
The head of Amazon Air helped drive a fast pace because of long hours, weekend availability, and heavy travel schedules. He was a strategist with a long-term vision and short temper. At least one employee was reduced to tears because of his temperament. He was described as a go-go former marine by one of his former employees.
Employees were encouraged to experiment while working for Amazon Air. Bezos told the team not to try to make the planes fly faster. It is Boeing's job. Design the network, operations, and technology in a way that is disruptive. Now that Amazon Air transports its own volume, the company can design more flexible systems that can be built around its two day delivery window. They said the building couldn't handle that many packages. They wanted to lease space at an airport in Portland and truck it up.
Everyone didn't like Amazon's disruptive mentality. The Amazon Air team had the ability to change flight schedules based on a number of factors. Employees adjusted their schedules on a monthly basis. Some less experienced staffers tinkered with schedules without fully understanding the consequences of their actions. A former employee says that the carriers would look at it and think it was crazy. It was the first time they had ever tasted how Amazon works.
A former Amazon employee saw pilots resting in the cockpit on a visit to an Amazon Air facility. He had heard their complaints about having to spend too much time on the plane, and now he was seeing it. They were getting jerked around by Amazon and the ridiculous schedule changes that we were dropping on them. We knew that you were going to be flying from Cincinnati to Seattle tomorrow. A former air employee says that they decided to take you to Portland.
The employee said that Amazon knew the airlines were working with them and wanted to make them happy. Amazon doesn't have a say in pilot scheduling, according to an Amazon spokesman. The company says it now updates its schedule three to four times a year.
You didn't feel warm and fuzzy there. It was a place where you were intellectually challenged.
Two days before Thanksgiving, the tensions boiled over. An Amazon employee was brushing his teeth when he looked at his phone. There was a lot of emails about the flight canceled. The flight was canceled. The flight was canceled A group of pilots for ABX Air told the ground crew they were leaving after landing in Dallas at 2 am, according to a former employee. Over the course of the day, around 250 ABX pilots walked off the job, protesting the demands ABX was placing on them. Half of the pilots had already taken at least six "emergency" assignments by June, the annual limit in their labor contract. Requests for comment were not responded to.
The pilots were ordered to return to work the next day. The company stopped doing business with ABX until it was certain the pilots wouldn't strike again. The union wanted to say that they are important. The pilots are important to us. A former Amazon Air employee said that they have control. Amazon said that they have a lot more control.
Those who spoke to WIRED agreed that his departure was unrelated to the team's performance. His temper got the better of him many times. Amazon did not comment on his departure.
Sarah Rhoads ran fulfillment centers in the UK and EU. Rhoads was the first woman in the US Navy to serve as a fighter pilot in Iraq. She became an operations manager at Amazon in 2011. A former colleague says she bledAmazon. Amazon Air focused on scaling up and fast with the major pieces of its operating model in place. The idea of air delivery was thought to be a defect. The research science team built an automated scheduling system as the number of flights increased. Managers at airports relayed their data to software engineers in Seattle. If it takes a minute for a box to be unloaded, how do you make it take less time? Based on the scale of operations, it was a huge deal.
The scale of operations went up a lot. Amazon Air had six regional hubs and 200 daily flights in the US over the course of the next two years. The company took over ground operations at some airports in the middle of the year. Demand for online shopping spiked when growth continued. There is a hub in Germany. In early 2021, the company purchased its first 11 Boeing 767 jets from Delta and WestJet, a fleet it would operate.
The work continued to be demanding, but former staffers quickly saw the results of their labor. One former employee says that it wasn't a warm place to work. It was a place where you felt intellectually challenged and rejuvenated.
Michael was a pilot in the US Air Force during the first Gulf War for more than three decades. When Atlas Air became one of Amazon's main contractors, he was the captain of a jumbo jet. Cargo clients were used to getting basic flight information. He realized they were facing a different type of customer when he heard accounts from fellow pilots. When the first and last pallet came off the plane, what time did the loader show up, and what time did the wheels touch down? The man who retired from Atlas last year said they wanted the little things.
The company used the data to tighten its operations and sometimes went into the pilots' territory. Federal regulations state that an airline's pilot and dispatch bears responsibility for the safe conduct of a flight which includes decisions about fuel loads. As Amazon began to exert more influence, the line sometimes got blurry.
According to reports, Amazon requested certain fuel loads from the airlines based on their efficiency calculations. Fuel is paid for by Amazon. Fuel loads can be affected by a number of factors. With all the data they have, they can make their own decisions, which may or may not be the safest or even the correct one.
The sole responsibility of the certificated air carrier and their pilot in command is to determine the appropriate flight plan and fuel load for each flight. Aviation regulations and our carrier contracts reflect this.
A complaint that crossed Robert Kirchner's desk in 2020 is what he recalls. A person with knowledge of the incident who requested anonymity said that Amazon asked Atlas Air to change a route from Hawaii to California. It's difficult to make money on cargo flights to Hawaii since planes often arrive full and return empty. The alternative route saved six minutes of flight time and 600 pounds of fuel on a flight that normally carries tens of thousands of pounds.
Between the mainland and Hawaii is a large expanse of open ocean. When pilots lose access to radar, they follow established routes and report their positions to air traffic control, which uses this intel to coordinate with other traffic in the sky and initiate search and rescue operations. pilots can confirm that they have enough fuel left to complete the journey by knowing their position on established tracks The pilots were being told to take a direct path toRiverside and not follow the usual route.
When Atlas received a complaint about the safety implications of the new route, it was replied to by Amazon. Several pilots had already flown the route despite the airline acknowledging it was invalid. Amazon may give airlines ideas, but pilots are in charge of deciding flight paths. Atlas isn't responsible for route planning, according to a spokeswoman.
Even in the early days, the business objectives of Amazon clashed with safety. According to a former Amazon employee, a squabble broke out between the company and its air carriers in late 2016 over the storage of batteries that can catch fire, a potential hazard that may have been the cause of the downing of a United Parcel Service cargo plane in the Middle East. An employee says that the pilots thought the battery packages weren't labeled. The employee said that workers had to identify products with the batteries and label their boxes accordingly. The union's safety committee reported that Amazon wasn't listing boxes with batteries on the flight paperwork. The former Amazon employee said that it felt like Amazon was just doing things to see how far they could go.
Connors wrote, "Amazon marks and labels packages containing batteries in accordance with applicable regulations and through coordination with the FAA." Some packages containing batteries do not need to be marked or labeled. It is the responsibility of the air carrier to make sure that the cargo is loaded in a safe and compliant way.
Dozens of ground crew workers walked off the job in San Bernardino this summer. They went on strike, demanding $5-an-hour raises and better health and safety conditions. Managers didn't give workers their state mandated heat breaks until employees spoke out, according to ramp agent Rex Evans. The main concern of some managers is getting the planes out on time. Connors wrote that the company provides air-conditioned ramp vans and employs safety professionals who monitor the temperature and take extra measures when necessary.
Some of its new neighbors have objected to Amazon Air's expansion. The 1923 Spanish Mediterranean house was the location of Rick and Eugenia Garrity's new home in Lakeland, Florida. Rick had been an oratorio singer before he retired and the Garr had been an environmental scientist before they both retired. Bombing noises are what it is. The patio of a Starbucks is a few blocks from the house. An Amazon jet roared low overhead as if to finish her point.
Project Scythia was the name of the plan to bring Amazon jets to the sleepy airport. The officials hoped that securing such a valuable client would bring jobs to the area and make the airport more attractive to additional investment. The quality of the human environment was not impacted by the environmental impact review by the FAA. There were 22 Amazon flights a day passing through the airport.
The citizens packed a public hearing when it was announced that Amazon would double its air traffic to 44 flights a day in seven years. 17 people spoke against the expansion at the podium. Their sleep was disrupted by the noise. The quality of life in Lakeland is being threatened by a cancer. A middle-aged man chastised his mostly retired neighbors, praising the jobs the expansion would bring and pointing out that two Amazon workers would clear a combined $60,000 a year, nearly $10,000 above the county's median household income. The terms of the original lease made their opinions irrelevant. Residents filed a petition against the FAA with the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals, hoping it would force Amazon to change the planes. It is still pending.
The Los Angeles Times reported that on December 27, the Friday after Christmas, airport officials in San Bernardino, California, voted to lease space to an unnamed tenant. A 658,500-square-foot air cargo facility with parking for 14 aircraft, 2,000 cars, and 380 trailers was supposed to be built by the company. The lease was unanimously approved that Monday. The law requires public hearings about new distribution centers.
Air pollution from the high concentration of warehouses and trucks in San Bernardino has been found to cause health problems for black and brown residents. The new airport project was found to have no significant environmental impact once again. Residents blasted Amazon and its developer, demanding that they agree to guarantee well-paid jobs and fund measures to limit sound and air pollution In 2020, the attorney general of California filed a petition for review against the FAA, the San Bernardino airport authority, and Amazon. The California Attorney General's Office filed its latest petition in late November.
When the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey approved a deal for Amazon to lease a cargo facility at Newark Liberty International Airport, protests erupted over the ensuing months. Local environmental groups, labor organizations, and politicians accused the plan of taking away well-paying union jobs and increasing pollution in minority communities. The deal between Amazon and the Port Authority was called off in July due to unresolved issues.
The environmental impact of Amazon Air goes beyond the communities where its planes take off and land. Amazon has been going in the wrong direction for the last few years. A member of Amazon Employees for Climate Justice says they don't know how much of net-zero will come from actually reducing emissions.
Rhoads points to Amazon's use of electric loaders and other vehicles at its air gateways as proof that it is committed to cutting emissions. She notes that Amazon Air was a founding member of the sustainable aviation buyers alliance, a group of airlines committed to buying certain amounts of sustainable produced fuel Machine learning could be used to improve inventory placement and make products more likely to be ordered. It would be possible to fit more packages into each plane. Predicting the carbon emissions of different shipment modes could be used to communicate with customers who are climate conscious. It may be possible to limit the number of products it shows customers to those in warehouses within moderate driving distance. The Everything Store would be transformed into the Everything Near You Store. By all accounts, Amazon is going in a different direction.
In May of this year, Jeff Bezos stood on the tarmac of Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport, flanked by two blue-and-white Amazon jets and a big mound of dirt. Bezos was making a rare appearance at an official ground breaking for the Amazon Air hub, which was one of the most expensive in the company's history. He told the Amazon executives, airport officials, local politicians, and media gathered under a white tent that they would be moving Prime from two-day to one-day. Bezos exclaimed, "Let's move some earth!" after viewing a video model of a planned sortation center. He wore a hard hat and climbed aboard a yellow John Deere loader to dump the dirt.
A news crew was talking to a man in the parking lot outside of the gates. Over the past few years, the Teamsters had protested against Amazon, including picketing its shareholder meetings, circling its Seattle headquarters, and threatening to strike. According to Kirchner, there has been an increase in fatigue calls from union members. Three years into a bitter contract negotiation, Atlas and its pilots were frustrated that they were among the lowest paid in the air cargo industry. The union elected new leadership after the sides failed to reach an agreement.
According to two former employees with knowledge of the design of the Cincinnati hub, the company took extra care to ensure that the pilots wouldn't mix with its staff, keeping pilot quarters completely separate from those used by employees and giving pilots their own entrance to shared buildings. One of the staffers said that Amazon is not a union company. That was part of the discussion. They wanted to make sure that the union pilots weren't interacting with the non union workers. There are separate pilot lounges that are standard within the industry. The ground crew employees at CVG announced in November that they were starting a union campaign.
Several project leaders left before the hub's completion due to the chaotic construction. A discovery that the building site had too much water led to tens of millions of dollars in unforeseen costs. Amazon has a lot of benefits. The public policy team has a good relationship with the local government. A former employee says that the sheer number of jobs created gave it a lot of sway. They were always supported by local and state officials. Employees who worked on the project say that the Cincinnati hub opened in August of 2021.
According to a former employee, when they decided to build an air service, they wanted to cover the US in three years. Amazon was proud of the fact that FedEx andUPS did not take long to build.
Four former air employees said that the growth came with a lot of underfilled planes. Many of the packages that traveled by air could have arrived at their destinations on time. Each package is decided by an internal program at Amazon. It chooses the cheapest option to deliver the package. If the full cost had been accounted for, the program would have been configured to drive more volume to Amazon Air than it is now.
Two former air employees recall items flying from Seattle to the Cincinnati hub, then back west to Portland, a two and a half hour drive from its northern neighbor. Ex-employees say the company flew a lot of popular items, such as toothbrushes and Apple products.
One former air employee said that they were told not to fall in love with the airplanes at United Parcel Service. They fell into that trap at Amazon Air.
The company operates the most sustainable and efficient network possible. Load factors are dependent on weight, volume, routing, staffing, facilities, and a complex mix of other network planning factors The ground transportation will be prioritized. The company had nothing further to add when asked about the use of airplanes for common items, as part of an additional round of fact-checking.
Excess capacity can be sold to other companies in order to offset the costs of unfilled planes. The universal model at Amazon is that you create an internal client for your service and then offer it to the rest of the world. That was the model for Amazon Web Services, according to a former Amazon Air employee. It makes sense if you want to build a huge internal transportation network.
Former employees say that selling spare air capacity has been more difficult than selling space in the cloud. Management told employees to focus on getting their own house in order when they raised questions about potential.
Rhoads was asked about Amazon Air selling its service to other people. Right now, our capacity is for Amazon shipments. I wonder if that will change over time. I don't say never with AMAZON.
The company is facing a reckoning over its mentality. A tanking stock price, slowing revenue growth, and economic uncertainty have ushered in a period of belt-tightening as Andy Jassy took the reins from Bezos. Bess is the executive chair. According to MWPVL International, a supply chain consultant that tracks Amazon networks, Jassy acknowledged that the company had overbuilt, and that he has closed, canceled, or delayed more than 80 facilities in the US. Dave Clark, the executive who oversaw Amazon's massive logistics buildout, and Dave Bozeman, Rhoads' boss who oversaw Amazon transportation services, resigned in June. The New York Times reported in November that the company was going to lay off 10,000 employees.
According to data from Cargo Facts consulting, Amazon Air's rate of growth slowed from 30 percent in 2021 to 5 percent in the first half of 2022. Amazon has outpaced revenue growth over the last five years. Air investments continue. In October, Amazon announced a partnership with Hawaiian Airlines, which will operate a type of aircraft not yet used by Amazon.
One of the earliest roads not taken is still entertained by the company. Several former employees say that Amazon has held meetings in the past about the possibility of acquiring one of its carriers and launching its own airline.
Amazon Air was born from the company's desire to free itself from the constraints of its shipping partners, control its destiny, and better serve its customers. The retailer hasn't faced another Christmas crisis in the last four years. It continues to load huge 767s with its signature boxes. By the end of the year, Amazon says it will start using drones to deliver packages in two towns.
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