Jeff Bezos made a surprise appearance this week at the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky airport to break ground on a new Amazon Air hub, a three million-square-foot facility that will help the company make good on its recent promise of free one-day package delivery for its Prime members.

The Amazon chief showed a video of what the facility will look like, ceremoniously moved dirt himself (displaying skills as a heavy equipment operator), and proudly chirped that the Hub would soon be populated with "Prime Air" emblazoned airplanes.

What's not to like? More jobs, faster package delivery, advancement, and growth.

But there's another side to the coin, hinted at by the fact that the pomp and circumstance took place in a closed ceremony with carefully controlled messaging, blocking out representation of one important group in particular and one particularly important issue: pilot safety.

Pilots were not a part of the fanfare, and were literally being interviewed off to the side of the sideshow. Robert Kirchner, a 42-year pilot and chair of the executive council of Atlas Air (a cargo-shipping airline), pointed out in an onsite interview that the fact that the ceremony is a closed one is telling.

His fear is that safety is being compromised as exhausted pilots ferry an increasing amount of packages increasingly fast, while attrition of burned-out pilots is thinning the ranks of people qualified to fly the planes that enable one-day shipping in the first place.

"There's a large uptick in fatigue calls, sick calls. Pilots are just being worn out," noted Kirchner in an interview with local Cincinnati TV station WLWT. "There are a lot of canceled flights, a lot of delayed flights, due to the pilot shortage and the staffing stressed operation, and that doesn't bode well for the future of this enterprise that Amazon is breaking ground on today."

For its part, Atlas Air views these comments as an effort by a union seeking leverage in contract negotiations. "Our commitment to safety is the foundation of everything we do at Atlas Air. We thank our dedicated crew of more than 2,000 pilots and 1,500 ground staff for sharing this commitment and putting it into practice every day," a spokeswoman said in an email. "Contrary to what the union continues to suggest, Atlas Air has a solid record of delivering strong, trusted service for our customers."

Also this week, Amazon addressed head-on how to find people to drive vehicles to deliver more packages, faster. The company offered current employees three-months' salary and $10,000 in startup funding to quit their current Amazon post and start a ground delivery business. Obviously, they can't offer the same program for employees to quit and fly cargo planes.

So how will they address the needs of getting enough pilots and giving the current cargo flight operators a reasonable schedule that won't compromise their health and safety?

The increased workload generated by shuttling packages around one day after being ordered adds on to the issue of an already well-documented pilot shortage (not to mention the intense trucking shortage). And it adds to the mounting problem of industrywide pilot fatigue.

It's the dark downside of the home shopping boom. Ever more packages delivered ever faster to our homes means more ground and air congestion, and more opportunities for safety disasters if not carefully thought through and planned for. I like getting my loofahs the next day as much as the next person, but at what cost?

I'm not saying one-day shipping can't be a boon for everyone, and I certainly hope it is. But let's have open conversations and open planning to safely enable it, not hide the warts under the shadowed tents of shiny, closed ceremonies.

Note: This article has been updated to add a statement from Atlas Air.

Published on: May 16, 2019
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