Winging It: Inside Amazon’s Quest to Seize the Skies

In a bid to keep its two-day delivery promise, the fast-moving tech giant entered the risk-averse air cargo business—with some bumps along the way.
Amazon cargo containers being loaded to Prime Air plane
The story of Amazon Air demonstrates the lengths the company will go to keep its promise to customers and maintain its retail dominance.Photograph: Spencer Lowell

Christmas was rapidly approaching, and Amazon was facing a crisis. In the waning shopping days of 2014, the retailer was preparing to promote its deal of the day: the Amazon Kindle, delivered just in time for Christmas. Then it discovered a problem: Stock was running low within driving distance of Seattle, where the company is headquartered. Amazon turned to UPS to airlift more e-readers to the city, but with the holiday shopping season in full swing, the parcel service was unwilling to divert more planes to appease its increasingly demanding client. Amazon, it appeared, would not be able to deliver its signature device to shoppers in its own backyard. 

The prospect of failure was unbearable for executives steeped in Amazon founder Jeff Bezos’ doctrine of customer obsession, according to a former employee. They were also still haunted by the nightmare of the previous Christmas, when a mass of packages landed late on the doorsteps of aggrieved holiday shoppers. But the 2013 fiasco had largely been due to ground transportation issues. This latest crisis was an air problem. While Amazon had spent the previous year building up its network of sortation centers to streamline delivery via trucks, the company depended entirely on FedEx and UPS to fly most of its packages around the United States. If those carriers couldn’t keep up with demand, Amazon wouldn’t be able to honor its Prime “promise” to ship any imaginable commodity to tens of millions of households within two days.

Worried about a second straight holiday season meltdown, Dave Clark, then Amazon’s head of worldwide operations, ordered his transportation team to rustle up some airplanes, fast, according to a former employee. Scott Ruffin, a former marine logistics officer who handled procurement for the sortation centers, reached out to everyone he knew in the industry and eventually helped charter enough planes to fly Kindles to Seattle from far-flung fulfillment centers. Christmas was saved. But what about next year, and the year after that? Amazon decided it needed more control over its destiny. It needed its own air network. 

Amazon is famous—or infamous—for its breakneck pace of innovation and data-driven efforts to squeeze every drop of productivity out of workers. Its drivers are reported to operate on punishing schedules, its warehouse workers are timed to the second, and the US Occupational Safety and Health Administration has launched multiple probes into conditions at its warehouses. At the same time, its corporate values are hallowed within the company walls. “Jeff Bezos came down from the mountain with 12 leadership principles,” jokes a former staffer. They urge a “bias for action,” declaring that “speed matters” and “many decisions and actions are reversible and do not need extensive study.”

The aviation world moves more slowly. Airport space is difficult to come by; cargo jets are enormously expensive to convert and operate. (“You know how you become a millionaire in the air business?” quips one aviation veteran. “You start with a billion dollars.”) Running an air cargo service requires compliance with government regulations covering security, labor relations, and most important of all, safety, designed to prevent accidents and loss of life.

But Amazon has managed to build its own sizable cargo service in just a few years, helping it to dramatically decrease its reliance on UPS and FedEx. (FedEx eventually terminated its Amazon contracts in 2019.) The company now owns 11 planes and leases about 100 others, flown by seven air carriers that make more than 200 flights a day out of 71 airports, including a European hub near Leipzig, Germany. This fleet, known as Amazon Air, flies orders from fulfillment centers to customers when items are stored too far away to transport by truck, the company says. Last year, Amazon opened a $1.5 billion air hub at Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport (CVG)—among the largest capital investments in the company’s history. As a result, nearly three-quarters of Americans in the continental US live within 100 miles of an Amazon airport, according to a September report by DePaul University. 

The story of Amazon Air demonstrates the lengths the company will go to keep its promise to customers and maintain its retail dominance. It’s a side of the company that most shoppers rarely even see, unless they happen to glance up in the sky as an Amazon jet roars above. But as the program continues to expand, some former employees say these costly, emissions-spewing airplanes are often under-filled or are used to ship goods that could be carried more cheaply and efficiently by road.

WIRED spoke to more than two dozen current and former Amazon Air employees about how the company launched an air service with the agility of a startup and the muscle of a megacorporation. ​​Most spoke anonymously out of fear of facing retaliation or jeopardizing future career prospects. They described an entrepreneurial culture that accomplished big things fast, but also toxic management, angry communities, pilots pushed past their limits, and a singular focus on rapid growth, even if it came at the expense of efficiency. One former employee says some colleagues used to joke, “We took off, and there was no landing gear.” 

By 2021, Amazon Air planes were making more than 200 flights a day.

Photograph: Spencer Lowell

Just over a year after the Christmas Kindle crisis, Jeff Bezos assembled some of his S-team—a trusted cadre of senior executives—and members of the Middle Mile organization, which handled in-house transportation between Amazon’s warehouses, to make some important decisions. According to a former employee with knowledge of the event, the meeting began in typical Amazon fashion with attendees sitting around a table silently reading. In this case, they studied a six-page white paper drawn up by the Middle Mile team, which laid out potential operating models for an air network. Among the first big choices: Should Amazon acquire and operate its own airline or construct “an organization to interact with an airline,” as one former employee put it, outsourcing the flying, regulatory compliance, and liabilities? The former option would give the company greater control over the program but would also take much longer to execute and be riskier and more complex. For one thing, it would force Amazon to deal directly with the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). 

After everyone finished reading, they took turns posing questions. It seemed as if the sentiment was leaning toward acquisition until Bezos spoke—last, as he typically did in these meetings so as not to inhibit discussion. “Planes are planes,” an employee recalls him saying. “What are we going to do to differentiate?” This was a Bezos maxim. He preferred to spend Amazon’s prodigious resources on initiatives where the company would not only be profitable, but disruptive. Nobody had a good answer.

Ultimately, Bezos decided to contract out the flying. That meant Amazon would enlist carriers certified by the FAA to pilot planes it leased, or even owned, to bring packages closer to customers. One upshot, multiple former employees say, was that Amazon could avoid directly employing pilots, the vast majority of whom are unionized. Another was having multiple airlines compete for its business. “If one of the pilot unions messes around,” says a former Amazon Air employee and aviation industry longtimer, “they can just give the business to the other ones.” 

A couple of departments at Amazon ran pilot programs with a handful of airports, code-named Archangel and Amelia, to test out different air transport models. Leaders from the Middle Mile team had studied the German shipping giant DHL, which outsourced its US flight operations to multiple small cargo airlines that provide clients with aircraft, crew, maintenance, and insurance—ACMI, in industry parlance—and asked the airlines to replicate that model for Amazon. 

The experiments worked, and in 2016 Amazon signed long-term deals to lease 40 jets from two ACMI carriers: Air Transport Services Group (ATSG) and Atlas Air. The group from Middle Mile was officially tasked with running Amazon Air. Soon after, planes emblazoned with Amazon’s signature arrow on the tail and the words “Prime Air” across the body started flying across the US.

In the early days, the Amazon Air team largely staffed its ranks with people who had little air cargo background, according to some employees. “People can learn the aviation part,” says a former staffer. “What’s more important was having people that [embrace] the Amazon leadership principles,” like mandates to innovate, invent, and “think differently.” For some aviation industry veterans, this approach seemed naive, even arrogant. But there were Amazon employees who viewed the aviation veterans as frustratingly cautious. “People from FedEx and Boeing struggle coming to Amazon because they will take months and analyze to death before they make decisions,” says a former Amazon Air leader, adding, “Amazon has a DNA of decisionmaking and risk-taking.” 

With airport space scarce, the team constructed package processing facilities at airports wherever they could find room, like in out-of-the-way hangars from World War II. In Stockton, California, the company erected a temporary structure jokingly known as the “circus tent.” “We didn’t try to launch it 100 percent perfectly. We launched it like 70 percent perfectly,” says a former employee.

Even as they plowed ahead, some employees labeled air delivery a “defect,” a phrase that became a common refrain on the team. Air transport is much costlier than ground shipping. It’s also about 10 times more carbon-intensive than truck transport, according to researchers at the MIT Center for Transportation and Logistics. While some staffers said Amazon sold too many products to place each one within a two-day drive, others argued that with better forecasting and inventory placement, you wouldn’t need so many planes, especially as Amazon’s network of fulfillment centers multiplied. UPS, says a former Amazon employee and cargo industry veteran, saved hundreds of millions of dollars by better connecting its ground network rather than buying more aircraft. But Amazon was intent on covering the entire country—and beyond—by air, say three former employees. 

Ruffin, now head of Amazon Air, helped drive a breakneck pace—long hours, weekend availability, and heavy travel schedules were a given. Numerous former employees characterized him as a talented strategist with a long-term vision and a short fuse. Former staff said he was prone to outbursts and reduced at least one employee to tears. One former employee described him as “a go-go former marine, a real ballbuster.” 

Amazon Air operated much like a startup, and employees were encouraged to experiment. A former staffer recalls Bezos’ edict to the team: “Don’t try to make the airplanes fly faster. That’s Boeing’s job. Your job is to design the network, the operations, and technology in a way that is disruptive.” When beholden to FedEx and UPS, Amazon had to operate on a rigid timetable so those carriers could meet their own overnight delivery commitments. Now that Amazon Air transported only its own volume, the company could design more flexible, customized systems built around its two-day delivery window that lasted until 10 pm. “You get presented with a problem like, ‘We need to move this many packages to Seattle in December,’” recalls a former early staffer. “At UPS they’d say, ‘Our building can’t handle that many packages.’ At Amazon, they said, ‘Well, let’s [lease space at an] airport in Portland and truck it up.’” 

Robots sort packages on the floor of an Amazon Air warehouse at an airport in Florida. 

Photograph: Spencer Lowell

Amazon Air squeezed every ounce of efficiency out of some processes. “Even a slight improvement based on the scale of operations was a huge deal,” says a former engineer.

Photograph: Spencer Lowell

Amazon’s disruptive mindset didn’t sit well with everyone. The Amazon Air team had wide latitude to change flight schedules based on factors like demand, aircraft and crew availability, the location of cargo, and how full they could get the planes. In the early days, employees adjusted schedules on a monthly basis—more frequently than was industry standard. Meanwhile, some less experienced staffers tinkered with schedules without fully understanding the consequences for aircraft maintenance and other aviation particularities. “Then the carriers would look at it and be like, ‘This doesn’t make any sense,’’’ says a former employee. “It was their first time truly tasting how Amazon works, how demanding it is, how tiring it can get.”

On a visit to an Amazon Air facility in California in 2016, one former Amazon employee saw pilots resting in the cockpit before their flights. (A pilot representative told Bloomberg around that time that Amazon’s schedules sometimes left them nowhere to rest but the cockpit.) He had heard their complaints about having to spend excess time on the plane, and now he was seeing it firsthand. “They were getting jerked around by Amazon and the ridiculous schedule changes that we were dropping on them,” says the former employee, who adds that schedules would sometimes change at the last minute. “It was not uncommon for us to be like, ‘Oh, hey, we know that you’re supposed to be flying from Cincinnati to Seattle tomorrow. We decided we want you to go to Portland instead,’” says another former air employee.

“Amazon knew the airlines were working with this big juggernaut and wanted to do whatever they could to make us happy—at the sacrifice of pilot morale,” says the same employee. (An Amazon spokesperson says the company provides its desired flight schedule to carriers but does not have a say in pilot scheduling. The company also says it now automates its schedules and updates them three to four times a year.)

The tensions came to a head two days before Thanksgiving. Early that morning, an Amazon employee was brushing his teeth when he glanced down at his phone. “I started to see this flood of emails come in: Flight canceled. Flight canceled. Flight canceled.” A group of pilots for ABX Air, a subsidiary of ATSG, had landed in Dallas around 2 am, deplaned, and instead of continuing on, told the ground crew they were leaving, according to another former employee. Over the course of the day, around 250 ABX pilots walked off the job, protesting the demands ABX was placing on them amid an industry-wide staffing shortage and soaring workload from customers like Amazon and DHL. According to court filings, around half of the pilots had already taken at least six “emergency” assignments by June, the annual limit in their labor contract. (ABX did not respond to requests for comment.)

The standoff ended when a judge ordered the pilots back to work the following day. Nonetheless, Ruffin suspended Amazon’s business with ABX for several more weeks, until the company was sure the pilots wouldn’t strike again, a spokesperson told Recode. “The strike was a power play to have the union say, ‘We are important. Our pilots are important. And we have control,’” says a former Amazon Air employee. “The cessation of operations was Amazon saying, ‘We have a lot more control.’”

Ruffin was pushed out of the company in 2017, although those who spoke to WIRED agreed that his departure was unrelated to the team’s performance. Several former employees heard that his temper had gotten the better of him one too many times. Ruffin did not respond to requests for comment, and Amazon did not comment on his departure.

Robots sort packages on the floor of an Amazon Air warehouse at an airport in Florida. Video: Spencer Lowell; Jacqui VanLiew

He was replaced by Sarah Rhoads, who had previously run fulfillment centers in the UK and EU. Rhoads lacked a business or air cargo background but had served in active duty as a fighter pilot in Iraq—the first woman in the US Navy Strike Fighter Squadron, the Black Aces. She joined Amazon as an operations manager in 2011 and rose quickly through the ranks. “She bled Amazon,” says a former close colleague. With the major pieces of its operating model in place, Amazon Air turned its focus to scaling up, and fast. The notion of air delivery as a defect seemed to give way to a thirst for expansion. As the number of daily flights climbed, eventually generating millions of potential fleet-flight combinations, the research science team built an automated scheduling system. Managers at airports around the country relayed data to Seattle, where software engineers aimed to make workflows more efficient. “If it takes a minute to offload a box, how do you optimize the process so that it takes 50 seconds?” says a former software engineer. “Even a slight improvement based on the scale of operations was a huge deal.” 

And that scale of operations expanded dramatically. Between 2019 and 2021, Amazon Air opened six regional hubs and reached some 200 daily flights in the US. In 2019, the company began taking over ground operations at some airports, staffing them with Amazon ramp agents who loaded, unloaded, and marshaled the planes. The rapid pace of growth continued into the pandemic, when demand for online shopping spiked. A hub in Germany opened in November 2020. In early 2021, the company purchased its first 11 Boeing 767 jets from Delta and WestJet, a fleet its air carriers would operate, capitalizing on steep discounts offered by beleaguered passenger airlines. 

The work continued to be demanding, former staffers say, but they swiftly saw the fruits of their labor. “It was not a place where you felt warm and fuzzy,” says one former employee. “But by God it was a place where you felt intellectually challenged, where you felt intellectually rejuvenated, like you were getting shit done.”

“Amazon has a DNA of decisionmaking and risk-taking,” says a former Amazon Air leader. 

Photograph: Spencer Lowell

Michael Griffith had been flying jets for more than 30 years, piloting US Air Force missions during the first Gulf War. He was a 747 captain for Atlas Air when the airline became one of Amazon’s main contractors. Griffith was used to cargo clients wanting basic flight information, like arrival and unloading times. But as a union officer with the Teamsters labor union, he started hearing accounts from fellow pilots and realized they were facing a different kind of customer. Amazon wanted to know what time the wheels touched down, what time they hit the chocks, what time the loader showed up, and when the first and last pallets came off the plane. “They wanted the minutiae,” says Griffith, who retired from Atlas last year.

Amazon used the data to tighten its operations, but Griffith says the company would sometimes veer into the pilots’ territory. Federal regulations state that an airline’s pilot and dispatcher bear responsibility for the safe conduct of a flight, which includes decisions about routing and fuel loads—the amount of fuel a plane carries. But as Amazon began to assert more influence, Griffith and other pilots say the line sometimes blurred.

The Teamsters union that represents Atlas pilots received reports claiming that Amazon requested certain fuel loads from the airlines based on its calculations for the efficiency of a flight. (Amazon pays for fuel.) But fuel loads can be affected by a host of other factors, such as weather and maintenance status. “With all this data that they amassed, they’re able to make their own judgments, which may or may not be the safest or even the correct ones,” says Griffith.

Amazon spokesperson Olivia Connors writes, “We may share ideas with our carriers from time to time, but it is the sole responsibility of the certificated air carrier and, ultimately, their assigned pilot in command, to determine the appropriate flight plan and fuel load for each flight. This is reflected in applicable aviation regulations as well as our carrier contracts.” 

Robert Kirchner, a veteran pilot and Teamsters official who represented the Atlas pilots until late last year, recalls a complaint that crossed his desk in 2020. According to Kirchner, documents reviewed by WIRED, and a person with knowledge of the incident who requested anonymity, Amazon asked Atlas Air to change a route from Kona, Hawaii, to Riverside, California. The economics of cargo flights to Hawaii are tricky, since planes often arrive full to the islands and return nearly empty. The alternative route saved six minutes of flight time and 600 pounds of fuel on a flight that usually carries tens of thousands of pounds; it also required pilots to veer off the established airways.

The over 2,000-mile expanse between the mainland and Hawaii is the largest stretch of open ocean commercial pilots traverse. Since they lose access to radar once they reach a certain distance from land, pilots 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 should something go wrong. Knowing their position on these established tracks can also help pilots confirm that they have enough fuel left to complete the journey. Now, the Teamsters say, Atlas was asking pilots to take a direct path to Riverside and veer off the normal route. 

When Atlas received a complaint about the safety implications of the new route, its dispatchers responded that Amazon had requested it. The airline ultimately acknowledged that the route was invalid, but Kirchner says several pilots had already flown it. Connors reiterated that Amazon may share ideas with airlines, but pilots are responsible for determining flight paths. Atlas spokesperson Debbie Coffey writes, “Atlas, not Amazon, is responsible for route planning.”

The Teamsters union and a former Amazon employee worried that Amazon’s business objectives sometimes clashed with safety even in the early days. In late 2016, according to the former Amazon employee, a squabble broke out between the company and its air carriers over lithium-ion batteries, which can catch fire if not stored properly—a potential hazard that was what likely downed a UPS cargo plane near Dubai several years earlier. The pilots believed Amazon’s battery packages weren’t adequately labeled, says the employee. The employee adds that Amazon eventually conceded, and workers scrambled to identify products containing the batteries and label their boxes accordingly. Kirchner says that after this, he received reports from the union’s safety committee that Amazon was not listing lithium-battery-containing boxes on the flight paperwork. “At certain points, it felt like Amazon was just doing things to see how far they could push the operating envelope,” says the former Amazon employee.

Connors disagreed with this characterization, writing, “Amazon marks and labels packages containing lithium batteries in accordance with applicable regulations and through coordination with the FAA. Some packages containing lithium batteries do not require specific marks or labels because they are exempt from such requirements. It is the ultimate responsibility of the certificated air carrier to determine whether cargo has been loaded on each flight in a safe and compliant manner.” 

Amazon boxes wait to be unloaded at the airport.

Photograph: Spencer Lowell

A label on one package warns of potentially hazardous material inside.

Photograph: Spencer Lowell

This summer, dozens of ground crew workers walked off the job at a regional air hub in San Bernardino, California. They later went on strike, demanding $5-an-hour raises and better health and safety conditions, and protesting the deployment of anti-union consultants. Ramp agent Rex Evans says that during a summer heat wave, when he measured temperatures on the ramp as high as 120 degrees Fahrenheit, managers didn’t give workers their state-mandated heat breaks until employees spoke out. “[Some] managers’ main concern is getting these planes out on time or getting them unloaded on time,” he says. Connors never directly addressed the incident, but writes that Amazon Air hubs are fully climate controlled, and that the company provides air-conditioned ramp vans and employs safety professionals who monitor the temperature and take extra measures when necessary.

As Amazon Air has expanded, it has faced pushback from some of its new neighbors. When Rick and Eugenia Garrity moved to their new Lakeland, Florida, home in 1979, they loved the location of the charming 1923 Spanish Mediterranean house. It was midway between Tampa, where Rick had worked as an environmental scientist, and Orlando, where Eugenia had been an oratorio singer before they both retired. They would occasionally spot turboprops and small private jets flying to and from nearby Lakeland Linder International Airport, but a couple of years ago the Garritys’ Floridian idyll was rudely disrupted by a procession of blue-and-white 767 jets screaming over their backyard, sometimes more than once an hour, every single day. “It’s bombing noises. It’s tremendous,” says Eugenia from the patio of a Starbucks a few blocks from home. As if to punctuate her point, an Amazon jet roars low overhead.

In 2019, the plan to bring Amazon jets to the sleepy airport was under a nondisclosure agreement and known only as Project Scythia. Officials hoped that securing such a valuable client would bring jobs and make the airport more attractive to additional investment, spurring the local economy. An environmental impact review of the project by the FAA found “no significant impact” on the “quality of the human environment.” Soon, some 22 Amazon flights a day passed through the airport.

When news broke in 2021 that Amazon planned to double its air traffic to 44 flights a day by 2027, concerned citizens packed a public hearing. Of 20 residents that spoke at the podium, 17 opposed the expansion. The noise was disrupting their conversations, their Zoom meetings, their sleep. “A malignant cancerous growth is threatening our quality of life here in Lakeland,” declared one resident. A middle-aged man chastised his mostly retired neighbors, praising the jobs the expansion would bring and pointing out that two Amazon workers making $15 an hour would clear a combined $60,000 a year, nearly $10,000 above the county’s median household income. In any case, their opinions seemed irrelevant: Per the terms of the original lease, Amazon had a right to expand. Residents filed a petition against the FAA with the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals, hoping the court would at least compel Amazon to reroute the planes. That decision remains pending. 

An Amazon Air jet roars over the streets of Lakeland, Florida, as it prepares to land at the local airport.

Photograph: Spencer Lowell

Lakeland isn’t the only community where Amazon Air’s expansion has stoked controversy. The Los Angeles Times reported that on December 27, 2019, the Friday after Christmas, airport officials in San Bernardino, California, had announced a vote to be held that Monday on leasing space to an unnamed tenant, which turned out to be Amazon. The company planned to build a 658,500-square-foot air cargo facility with parking for 14 aircraft, 2,000 cars, and 380 trailers. That Monday, officials unanimously ratified the lease. Two days later, a state law went into effect requiring public hearings about new distribution centers. 

San Bernardino’s largely Black and brown residents already suffered the health consequences of air pollution from the region’s high concentration of warehouses and trucks, many of them Amazon’s, according to investigations by Consumer Reports and Grist. Once again, the FAA had deemed that the new airport project would have no significant environmental impact. Residents blasted Amazon and its developer, demanding that they agree to guarantee secure, well-paid jobs and fund measures to limit sound and air pollution. In 2020, then-California attorney general Xavier Becerra filed a petition for review against the FAA, the San Bernardino airport authority, and Amazon’s developer, alleging that they had ignored potential health risks to the local community. A string of court rulings against the petitioners and refilings followed, with the California Attorney General’s Office filing its latest petition in late November.

Likewise, when officials at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey met in August 2021 to approve a deal for Amazon to lease a 250,000-square-foot cargo facility at Newark Liberty International Airport, protests erupted over the ensuing months. Local environmental groups, labor organizations, and politicians charged that the plan would take away well-paying union jobs and increase pollution in nearby minority communities. Amazon and Port Authority called off the deal in July, citing their inability to resolve unspecified “outstanding issues.”

Amazon Air’s environmental impact extends beyond the communities where its planes take off and land. It undermines the company’s own pledge to get half of its shipments to net-zero emissions by 2030 and to be fully net-zero by 2040. In recent years, Amazon has been heading in the wrong direction; between 2018 and 2021, emissions jumped 61 percent. “We have no idea how much of that net-zero is going to come from actually reducing emissions versus doing carbon offsets,” says a member of Amazon Employees for Climate Justice, an activist group of some 900 workers. Studies have shown that offsets frequently cancel out fewer emissions than advertised. 

Rhoads touts Amazon’s use of electric loaders and other vehicles at its air gateways as evidence of its commitment to cutting emissions. She notes that Amazon Air was also a founding member of the Aviators Group within the Sustainable Aviation Buyers Alliance, a group of airlines committed to buying certain amounts of sustainably produced fuel. But some employees say the company could use the technology at its disposal to reduce its reliance on airplanes almost entirely, and thereby lessen its ecological impact. It could invest more heavily in machine learning to improve inventory placement, positioning products closer to customers likely to order them. It could fit more packages into each plane by flying products before they were boxed. It could predict the carbon emissions of various shipment modes and communicate that to climate-conscious customers. It could even limit the number of products it shows customers to those in warehouses within moderate driving distance, as it does when shoppers filter for same-day delivery. But that would mean limiting sales for its third-party sellers, transforming the Everything Store into the Everything Near You Store. By all signs, Amazon is headed in the opposite direction. 

“Amazon was proud of the fact that what FedEx and UPS built in 20 years, they did in three,” says a former employee.

Photograph: Spencer Lowell

In May 2019, Jeff Bezos stood on the tarmac of Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport in a crisp blue button-down and aviator sunglasses, flanked by two blue-and-white Amazon-branded jets and a big mound of dirt. The $1.5 billion Amazon Air hub was among the priciest signs yet that the company was prepared to invest in building a formidable logistics empire, and Bezos was making a rare appearance at an official groundbreaking. “We’re going to move Prime from two-day to one-day,” he told the Amazon executives, airport officials, local politicians, and media gathered under a white tent, “and this hub is a big part of that.” After showing a video model of a planned sortation center the size of Buckingham Palace—the first in a complex of seven buildings—Bezos exclaimed, “Let’s move some earth!” Donning a hard hat, he climbed aboard a yellow John Deere loader, scooped a heap of dirt off the cement, and dumped it a few feet away. 

In the parking lot outside the gates, an uninvited Robert Kirchner, the Teamsters official, was talking to a local news crew. Over the past few years, the Teamsters had regularly protested Amazon—picketing its shareholder meetings, circling its Seattle headquarters with mobile billboards, and threatening to strike. Kirchner complained of an uptick in fatigue calls from union members and spoke about the clash between Amazon’s growing business and the pilot shortage. At the time, Atlas and its pilots were three years into a bitter contract negotiation with each other, a source of frustration for pilots who were among the lowest paid in the air cargo industry. (Last year, after the sides failed to reach an agreement, a third-party arbitrator imposed a new contract and the union elected new leadership.)

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 entirely separate from those used by employees and giving pilots their own entrance to shared buildings. “Amazon is not a union company,” says one of the staffers. “So that was always part of the conversation. They wanted to make sure that these union pilots weren’t necessarily interacting with their nonunion workers in their buildings.” Amazon calls this claim baseless and says separate pilot lounges are standard within the industry. (Nevertheless, in November, Amazon’s ground crew employees at CVG announced they were launching a union campaign.) 

Construction of the hub grew chaotic, former employees say, and several project leaders left before its completion. Amazon had set an ambitious timetable for the project, and unanticipated hiccups—like a discovery that the building site’s soil held too much water—led to tens of millions of dollars in unanticipated costs. But Amazon’s sheer size also conferred benefits. Its large public policy team massaged relationships with local governments. The sheer number of jobs created by an Amazon project gave it a lot of sway, says a former employee. “That’s how they were always able to get support from local officials, and even state officials.” The Cincinnati hub opened in August 2021, just under the deadline Amazon had set for itself, according to employees who worked on the project.

“When they decided they were going to build an air service, they wanted to cover the whole US within three years, and they did it,” says a former employee. “Amazon was proud of the fact that what FedEx and UPS built in 20 years, they did in three.”

But according to four former air employees, this explosive growth came with a fair amount of underfilled planes, especially during non-peak periods. What’s more, many of the packages that traveled by air could have reached their destinations on time by ground, they say. Amazon has an internal program that decides how each package is shipped. Generally, it chooses the cheapest option that delivers the package on time. But several former employees say that since the leases on planes were already paid for, the program was configured to drive more volume to Amazon Air than would have been the case if the full cost had been accounted for. 

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. While Amazon says it uses airplanes for items located too far away to drive, ex-employees say the company often flew widely available items, such as toothbrushes and iPhone chargers.

“At UPS, they say ‘Don’t fall in love with the airplanes,’” says one former air employee. “At Amazon Air, they seemed to have fallen into that trap.”

Connors writes that the company is constantly optimizing to operate the most sustainable and efficient network possible. “This includes aircraft load factors, which are dependent on weight, volume, routing, staffing, facilities, and a complex mix of other network planning factors. Ground transportation will be prioritized to meet our customer promise.” When asked about Amazon’s use of airplanes for common items as part of an additional round of fact-checking questions, Connors stopped responding, saying the company had “nothing further to add.”

One way to offset the costs of unfilled planes is to sell the excess capacity to other companies. “The universal model at Amazon is you create a big internal client for whatever service it is you’re building, and then you offer it to the rest of the world. That was the model for Amazon Web Services,” says a former Amazon Air employee, referring to the cloud computing division that powers Amazon’s logistics system. “It makes sense, if you’re going to build this huge internal transportation network, to turn around and offer it to third parties.”

But aside from a deal to fly packages for the US Postal Service, which began in 2017, former employees say that selling spare air capacity has proved more challenging than selling space in the cloud. When employees raised questions about that potential, management would say, “Let’s focus on getting our own house in order,” recalls one former employee. 

Asked about Amazon Air’s plans to sell its service to others, Rhoads demurs. “Our capacity that we plan right now is for Amazon customer shipments. Could that change over time? I never say never, with Amazon.”

Recently, the company has begun to face a reckoning over its “get big fast” mentality. A tanking stock price, slowing revenue growth, and economic uncertainty have ushered in a period of belt-tightening as new CEO Andy Jassy took the reins from Bezos this past summer. (Bezos is now executive chair.) Jassy acknowledged that the company had overbuilt in response to pandemic demand, and he has closed, canceled, or delayed plans to open more than 80 facilities in the US, according to MWPVL International, a supply chain consultant that tracks Amazon networks. June saw the resignation of Dave Clark, the executive who oversaw Amazon’s massive logistics buildout, followed by that of Dave Bozeman, Rhoads’ boss who oversaw Amazon Transportation Services. In November, The New York Times reported that the company planned to lay off 10,000 employees, the largest cuts in its history.

While Amazon Air continues to add flights, its rate of growth slowed from 30 percent in 2021 to about 5 percent during the first half of 2022, according to data from Cargo Facts Consulting. The consultancy also found that Amazon’s shipping and fulfillment costs have outpaced revenue growth for the past five years. Investments in air continue, however. In October, Amazon announced a partnership with Hawaiian Airlines, which will operate Airbus A330s, a type of aircraft not yet used by Amazon, on the retailer’s behalf.

Meanwhile, the company still entertains one of the earliest roads-not-taken. Multiple former employees say Amazon has held meetings over the years about the possibility of acquiring one of its carriers and launching its own airline—preferably with nonunion pilots. 

The birth of Amazon Air stemmed from the company’s desire to free itself from the constraints of its shipping partners, control its destiny, and better serve its customers. By sheer force, and perhaps some luck, the retailer hasn’t faced another Christmas crisis since 2013. And despite headwinds, it continues to load massive 767s with its signature boxes every day. Amazon is even looking ahead to the next, slightly smaller frontier: The company says it will start making deliveries by drone in two towns by the end of the year. 

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