The Ace of Amazon Air: Sarah Rhoads

Actions rather than words

Since its humble beginning in 1994, nearly a quarter-century ago, Amazon has been reluctant to give up its secrets or comment on its future ambitions. The same is true for Amazon Air, which was founded in 2016 as the e-tailer’s air delivery arm.

Strolling inside the other-worldly, triple-lobed glass-and-steel domes called “The Spheres” (pictured above) at Amazon’s newly built – and still expanding – Seattle headquarters, Rhoads was circumspect about the inner workings of the carrier. In true military protocol, Rhoads gave all credit for her success to the “world-class, diverse talent” on her team.

When asked about Amazon Air’s future, Rhoads returned with laser-like precision to her focus on her customers. “We need to make sure that we’re growing in a way that fulfills our customer promise,” Rhoads said. “This year, we’ve launched seven gateways, so that’s kind of a reflection of our expansion.”

But while Rhoads is reticent to speak, a swirl of unanswered questions continues to spin around Amazon about its growing competition in the U.S. and abroad, global trade wars or potential economic hardships in 2019.

For instance, it has been well documented that, in 2015, Amazon had experimented with own-controlled express air networks in Europe, with help from 3PL DB Schenker and 737 freighters from ASL Airlines. Rumors have circulated that Europe may be the next stepping stone for Amazon Air.

Rhoads, however, had little to add, other than to say, “My role really is to focus on North America right now.” Atlas’ Dietrich also had no comment about where Amazon might make its next move, but added that, “Amazon is the leader in the fast-growing global e-commerce sector, with opportunity to expand across all geographies.”

As for the addition of different kinds of aircraft, Rhoads said that the 767 is a “workhorse” and “a proven platform that has demonstrated that it’s done what we’ve needed it to do for the past two years.”

Amazon Air and its carrier partners have also been dogged with complaints by pilot unions – especially Teamsters Local 1224, representing pilots from subsidiary carriers owned by Atlas and ATSG – that pilots are being overworked and undercompensated for the extra hours needed to meet Amazon’s e-commerce demand. Rhoads said those are questions for the carriers that are contracted to fly for Amazon Air, but added that, “the service that’s been provided by Atlas and ATSG to us has been very consistent.” As demand for e-commerce rises, many airfreight pundits foresee a time when Amazon will more closely resemble an integrator than an e-tail giant, which would turn the likes of FedEx and UPS into direct competitors rather than clients.

Currently, FedEx and UPS “are still very much our partners,” Rhoads said. “But I’ll be honest – we want to make sure we deliver on that two-day [delivery] promise, in particular.”

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