An Amazon Air plane called CustomAir Obsession crashed on February 23. All three people on board were killed.
The Boeing 767 cargo jet, operated by Atlas Air and contracted by Amazon, had been approaching Houston’s George Bush Intercontinental Airport. The cause of the crash is still unknown.
In conversations with Business Insider in the weeks before the crash, several pilots who fly planes for Amazon Air said they thought an accident was inevitable. The rapid growth of Amazon’s air-cargo empire, coupled with the low pay, had led to inexperienced pilots taking to the skies, veteran pilots said.
Business Insider had interviewed 13 current and former pilots who worked with third-party airfreight companies that fly Amazon Air-branded planes. The pilots worked for subsidiaries of Air Transport Services Group (ATSG) and Atlas Air Worldwide Holdings. All are based in the US and fly both domestically and internationally.
These airline companies provide Amazon with leasing, staffing, maintenance, and insurance. The pilot groups who work with Amazon are ABX Air, Air Transport International (ATI), and Atlas Air. ABX and ATI are owned by ATSG, and Atlas Air Worldwide Holdings owns Atlas Air.
The pilots described difficulties in attracting experienced pilots, training they considered shoddy, experience with fatigue, plummeting morale, and pay that’s considerably lower than at other cargo carriers.
Of the pilots Business Insider spoke with, six worked at Atlas Air and seven worked at ATSG’s ABX. All these pilots are in the Teamsters Local Union 1224.
Capt. Robert Kirchner, an Atlas Air pilot and executive council chairman of Teamsters Local 1224, said the situation at Atlas Air was a “ticking time bomb” weeks before the crash. Capt. Daniel Wells, an Atlas Air pilot and the president of Teamsters Local 1224, told Business Insider in January that the check airmen — who oversee new hires for training and safety — are forced to work at “full speed or over speed.”
“I can honestly say, if you had all the check airmen in the room and we’ve done this, saying, who believes that it’s likely that there would be an accident in the next year,” Wells said, describing a hypothetical situation, “nearly 100% of the people will raise their hands.”
The pilots Business Insider spoke with represent a small sliver of the total number of Amazon Air pilots. ATSG employs about 500 pilots in the pilot units that work with Amazon Air, and Atlas Air employs 1,890 pilots. (Atlas does not separate its employment by pilot group numbers.)
And they have reason to be aggrieved. They said they have seen their pay and benefits erode over the past decade. Amazon Air pilots have been in contract disputes with their employers for nearly five years. Several of the pilots Business Insider spoke with are retired, and others have already left the companies.
Also, Atlas Air’s union leaders emphasized in a statement after the crash that the safety concerns cited by some pilots should not be conflated with the causes of the February 23 accident, which is still under investigation.
Bill Flynn, Atlas Air Worldwide CEO, said in a statement to Business Insider five days after this story published that the pilots’ and union leaders’ statements are “are misleading and inaccurate, and inappropriately connect the Flight 3591 tragedy with ongoing contract negotiations.”
“Since our founding over a quarter of a century ago, we have worked hard to earn and maintain a record of safety and compliance,” Flynn said in the statement. “We are heartbroken by the loss of Flight 3591 that claimed the lives of three of our friends and colleagues. We are working closely with the National Transportation Safety Board and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to learn what happened, why it happened and what needs to be done to prevent a recurrence.”
But while the cause of the Atlas Air crash remains unknown, the pilot concerns, which were consistent across the many conversations Business Insider had, raise new questions about overall safety standards on these flights, and risks associated with Amazon Air’s rapid expansion and outsourcing strategy.
Analysts say those factors could lead to service disruption and a serious blow to Amazon’s aspirations to expand its logistics empire.
“I am concerned anytime that new entrants into aviation particularly carrying packages or goods enter a market where their background has been essentially trying to cut costs to make money,” Jim Hall, who led the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) from 1994 to 2001, told Business Insider, referring specifically to Amazon. “Cutting costs in aviation causes deaths and accidents.”
Amazon did not respond to multiple requests for comments on pilots’ claims, though representatives expressed interest earlier in the reporting process to provide an interview or learn more about the story. Atlas Air Worldwide provided comments five days after the story published. ATSG, which owns ABX and ATI, gave a statement but did not respond to specific claims. The union for ATI pilots, Air Line Pilots Association International, did not respond to requests for comment.
While the cause of the Atlas Air crash remains unknown, the comments from more than a dozen pilots raise new questions about overall safety standards on these flights
An initial review of cockpit audio from Atlas Air Flight 3591, which crashed in Texas on February 23, indicated that the pilots on board had lost control of the plane.
Another review showed that the aircraft reached an airspeed of 430 knots (nearly 500 mph) during descent before it crashed. One pilot told Business Insider that that broke pilot-safety norms not to exceed 250 knots (288 mph) when below 10,000 feet.
The NTSB reportedly suspects pilot error as the cause of the crash.
Atlas Air pilots Capt. Ricky Blakely and First Officer Conrad Jules Aska, as well as Mesa Airlines Capt. Sean Archuleta, who was riding in the jump seat, died in the crash.
According to company records reported by the NTSB, both pilots were qualified and current in the Boeing 767. Blakely, the captain, had worked for Atlas Air since September 2015, with 11,000 hours flight experience and 1,250 hours of experience with the Boeing 767.
Aska, the first officer, or copilot, had 5,000 hours total flight experience and about 520 hours of experience with the Boeing 767.
Wells said in a statement: “The legitimate concerns we raised in interviews done well before the accident have not changed. However, we want to caution everyone that our comments should not be misconstrued so as to imply any connections to or to speculate as to the cause of the tragic crash of GTI 3591.”