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Atlas Air Contract Dispute With Pilots Simmers Weeks Before Holiday Shipping Season

Photo by Jim Mumaw

The gloves are coming off in Atlas Air’s contract negotiations with the pilots’ union. The air cargo carrier accused pilots last month of intentionally slowing down work in an effort to gain an upper hand in contract discussions. The company filed a federal complaint alleging the pilots were intentionally calling in sick and refusing to put in overtime.

Whether the accusations of bad pilot behavior are true or not, Atlas has felt the effects of labor strife. According to marketwatch.com, the airline has had an 83% increase in flight delays lasting over 6 hours since December of last year. The airline subsidiaries deliver cargo for Amazon, FedEx, Deutsche Post AG’s DHL and UPS. Associated unions include the International Brotherhood of Teamsters (IBT), its Airline Professionals’ Association and its Airline division.

You may be wondering, well, what has these pilots so angry? To answer that question, let’s go back to April 2016 when Atlas acquired Southern Air.

Southern Air acquisition: Potentially great deal for Atlas. Not such a great deal for pilots….

The Southern Air acquisition made Atlas Air Worldwide Holdings (AAWW) one of the leading providers of aircraft operating services on earth. However, in spite of rising profits, the Teamsters say the airline refuses to negotiate contracts on fair terms.

Before the merger, Atlas pilots had hoped for a contract that put them in line with other heavy-cargo pilots flying 747s, 767s, and 777s. AAWW and its affiliates filed legal proceedings in February in an attempt to force pilots, many of them former military, to merge the now defunct Atlas Air contract with Southern Air’s existing contract.  The problem was that the Southern Air contract was originally negotiated during bankruptcy when pilots had no choice but to accept big wage, benefit and work rule concessions while the company was facing potential liquidation.

Atlas Air Worldwide Holdings, Inc. freighter (OTRS wikimedia commons)

Pilots say they are over tired, over worked, and underpaid. They point to requirements that have them flying cargo around the globe for a fraction of their previous pay, under what has been called exhausting and dangerous flight and duty time standards. The APA website reports that some have reported having to operate aircraft for as long as 30 hours in one stretch without being allowed to rest.

The union did a comparison study that found that AAWW pilots are paid less and work many more hours than peers who fly for FedEx or UPS. Post the Southern acquisition and merger, the Atlas Air contract as it currently stands is at 50 to 60 percent below the rest of the industry.

In defense, AAWW CEO William J. Flynn says the cargo carrier’s goal is to merge the two contracts through binding arbitration. This would, of course, circumvent the standard process of direct pilot negotiations but according to Flynn, is in line with rules laid out by the Railway Labor Act. Both airlines and railroads operate under these rules which include mandatory federal mediation if the two parties cannot reach an agreement

Pilots say that while legal, AAWW’s push for arbitration is part of a plan to cut wages, get rid of as many pilot protections as possible and ruins the quality of life for pilots and their families. They have also expressed fears that the lower standards will affect the industry as a whole.

AAWW CEO Flynn responded to the comments by citing the company’s commitment to customer service, saying Atlas “must protect the service quality we provide to our customers,” defending the recently filed complaint as an effort to minimize service disruptions.

Atlas also said that, “Atlas values the contributions of its pilots. The Company will continue to negotiate with the IBT for a joint contract for Atlas and Southern Air crewmembers in connection with the pending merger. The Company remains committed to completing the bargaining process in a timely manner and in the best interests of all parties.”

But is the lack of an industry-standard contract what is best for customers?

The Seeds of Unrest: Pilots Protest in Times Square

Marking the beginning of the turmoil, apparently fed up with AAWW’s inability or unwillingness to negotiate what they think are fair terms, the Teamsters took to the Street and protested on the steps of NASDAQ during the Atlas Investor Day in June 2016. This was the start of a long struggle and foreshadowed the ensuing tumultuous contract dispute.

For the first time in American history, picketers wearing pilot uniforms held signs on the NASDAQ MarketSite steps that read, “Atlas Air Worldwide Holdings Pilots Ready to Strike,” “Americans Deserve a Fair Deal from DHL” and “Our Families Deserve Better.”

Atlas Pilots picket in front of NASDAQ Photo atlasfacts.org

AAWW and DHL have both seen rising profits. DHL reported $66.7 billion in increased consolidated revenue this past year. AAWW reported revenues totaling about $1.8 billion.

Air freighter pilot Captain Robert Kirchner pointed out that, “The operation at Atlas is falling apart because of chronic mismanagement, a shortage of pilots, and a lack of other key operational personnel.”

In spite of reported delays, an Atlas spokeswoman told CNBC in an email that the company intends to meet all its customer commitments, saying, “We remain committed to negotiating a competitive, single-collective-bargaining agreement in accordance with the terms of our existing labor agreements, which recognizes our pilots’ valued contributions.”

It seems as if more than a few pilots do not feel valued by the corporate giant, however. Many experienced pilots have recently left the airline for more lucrative cargo and airline flying with other carriers. The union is vowing to keep an oath of solidarity to fight the air cargo carrier for what it considers fair treatment. Meantime, AAWW waits for the courts to decide its fate. The lawsuit is ongoing in the United States District Court for Southern New York and could advance at any moment, only a few short months away from the peak holiday shipping season.

Two odd incidents for Atlas-crewed 747s this year

Near miss of terrain after wrong turn on departure from Hong Kong Airport

Lantau Peak Photo By Flickr user: 29cm. An Atlas Air 747 missed this peak by less than 1000 feet after a wrong turn. (https://flickr.com/people/29cm/ – Flickr: https://flickr.com/photos/29cm/535760385/, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=22539533)

September 24, 2017 an Atlas Air Boeing 747-8 Freighter nearly crashed into a mountain after take-off from Hong Kong International Airport. Hong Kong’s Civil Aviation Department (CAD) says after departing from runway 07R, the N856GT aircraft swayed right and deviated from its track, heading straight toward the mountains of Lo Fu Tau on Lantau Island. The air traffic control tower radioed the crew, telling them to turn left to resume standard instrument departure and “expedite the climb to 5,000ft.”

When the cargo plane reached 2,000ft, the Enhanced Ground Proximity Warning system went off. The pilot responded, turned the aircraft and ascended to higher ground … in the nick of time. A CAD spokesperson said, “the aircraft evaded the high ground by approximately 670 feet. Subsequently, the aircraft re-established the SID (standard instrument departure) track at approximately 15:46 and continued without further incident. There was neither injury to personnel nor damage to the aircraft involved and no other air traffic was affected.”

Was weather the culprit? Not according to meteorological data, which shows that on September 24 at that particular time, visibility was 10 kilometers, with just a few scattered clouds at 1,500 and 2,800 ft. There was also no sign of turbulence or wind shear. Was the pilot inexperienced or so fatigued that he failed to notice a mountain looming in front of him? You decide.

Runway Overrun at Tokyo Due to Incorrect Thrust Setting

Another serious incident July 15, 2017 involved a Polar Air Cargo Boeing 747-8F operated by Atlas Air. Less than 20 minutes before curfew, Flight PAC/PO213A was taking off from runway 16L at Tokyo/Narita., headed to Shanghai Pudong International Airport. The runway is 8,200 ft long, but the cargo plane became airborne at just 279 ft from the departure end. The pilot fell short of achieving a safe altitude which ideally would have been 10.7 m/35 ft at 326 m/1070 ft (15% length margin) from the departure end. A nearby resident under the departure course reported that household items were blown away by the plane and a fence near the end of the runway was damaged by engine exhaust.

JSTB launched an investigation similar to those conducted in overrun accidents. Polar Air Cargo admitted the incident was because of an incorrect thrust setting on takeoff. Fortunately, no injuries were reported but again in this case, it is unknown if the pilot was fatigued or lacked training and/or experience.

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Written by Kim Clarke

Kim Clarke

Kim Clarke is a Freelance Writer and Editor, specializing in the aviation industry and financial markets. She freelances for McGraw-Hill Financial, Avgeekery, Skydiving.com, USAHotAirBalloons and more. Past journalism experience includes Thomson Financial, CNN and Clear Channel Communications.

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