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.”

Top Gun days

Rhoads remains close-lipped about Amazon’s tactical and strategic thinking, but she is by no means taciturn when it comes to her team.

“I would say that I have a very open communication with my team; I welcome and expect feedback – and, frankly, pushback from my team,” she explained. “If there’s a better way of doing something, I want to hear it.”

A spokesperson for Amazon described Rhoads’ style as “confident yet humble servant leadership,” which focuses on “removing barriers, enabling her team to solve complex problems with innovative solutions.”

“I try to lead by example, as well,” Rhoads said. “I try to encourage people to make mistakes while ensuring we don’t fail. I think that’s one of the best ways to learn is by learning from mistakes.”

Dietrich has high praise for the professionalism of the Amazon Air team, despite the short time it has been operating. “They have extraordinary command of the subject matter,” he said. “They are very focused on customer service. We are honored that Sarah and the Amazon team have chosen Atlas Air as a partner.”

Rhoads’ precise way of taking on new challenges was, no doubt, forged during her service in the U.S. Navy. Following the dream of that little girl at a Montana air show, she joined the U.S. Naval Academy and earned a bachelor of science degree with merit in mechanical engineering, and later earned a master’s degree in national security and strategic studies from the U.S. Naval War College.

She served on active duty in the Navy from 1999 to 2011, and as an active Reservist from 2011 to 2014, achieving the rank of Commander, and flying the carrier-based F/A-18 E/F Super Hornet fighter aircraft. During Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003, she flew 37 combat missions from the U.S.S. Nimitz in the Arabian Gulf, providing air support, armed reconnaissance and escort.

Later, Rhoads served as an instructor pilot with Strike Fighter Squadron 122 from 2005 to 2007. Among many other duties, she instructed more than 100 Naval aviators in the operation and tactical employment of the Super Hornet.

“Sarah was one of three pilots selected Navy-wide to represent the United States at the 2006 Farnborough International Airshow,” said the Amazon spokesperson. “She’s our real-life ‘Top Gun.’”

Being a successful woman in a traditionally, almost exclusively, male profession, Rhoads said she is often asked if she suffered extra hardships on her rise through the ranks. “Really, I never made a big deal about it,” she explained. “Because I didn’t, other people didn’t either. The great thing about aviation is it doesn’t matter what your gender is or your religion or your race. It’s how you do the job. That’s what counts.”

Coming home

After an adrenaline-fueled, high-stress 12 years of service, Rhoads began thinking about her transition to civilian life in 2014, but it was Amazon that made the first move. “They found me first,” she said. “I think they saw maybe the translatable skills that I had before I recognized it.”

“We saw someone who had achieved every educational and professional goal set in some intense environments, and with high performing teams,” said an Amazon spokesperson about Rhoads’ military and aviation credentials.

“We are proud and honored of the service to the military that Sarah undertook and how she has transitioned those skills from her Navy experience into Amazon,” said Amazon’s Bozeman. “Sarah takes on any challenge and has always done a great job leading and developing her teams.”

While she was still a Navy Reservist, Rhoads joined Amazon in May 2011 as an operations manager for a fulfillment center in Lexington, Kentucky, and was promoted in 2012 to senior operations manager, leading fulfillment center teams in Lexington and Columbia, South Carolina. She then relocated in 2013 to Fort Worth, to lead the launch of the outbound operation in the largest, robotics-ready facility in Amazon’s network.

“What really made me interested was the pace of operations. I think I’m an operator at heart,” Rhoads said. “I also wanted to be challenged every day in a positive way, just like I was in the Navy. Third, I wanted to do something where I wouldn’t be sitting behind a desk every day, and Amazon has provided that every day.”

After developing a genuine love for the operational aspects of fulfillment logistics, Rhoads transferred to Wales to become general manager of one of the largest Amazon operations in the U.K. By January 2016, she relocated to London and became regional director of operations, responsible for leading thousands of Amazon employees and fulfillment center operations in northwest England and Wales.

Despite her increasing responsibilities, Rhoads’ duties were often hands-on, including shifts on the “front line,” picking merchandise for customer orders. “I spent quite a bit of time in fulfillment centers, when I was representing my region,” she said. “There’s an expectation to know all the details of one’s business.”

In April 2017, Rhoads came back to the U.S., seeking a shift to Amazon’s new aviation arm, then known as “Prime Air.” As someone with a passion for both aviation and fulfillment, she fit in well as director of aviation operations for the air wing, based in Seattle. She was promoted to director of Prime Air in September 2017, which changed its name to “Amazon Air” by year’s end to avoid confusion with its delivery drone program, also called Prime Air.

Rhoads also appreciates how much her Navy background has suited he current position. “It’s been helpful to have a true understanding and appreciation for aviation safety,” she noted. “Understanding things, ranging from engines to instrument approach requirements, runway lengths, and what it means when aircraft need to divert because of a weather event.”

More holistically, Rhoads said she is grateful for the “agility” she learned in the Navy, which she defined as, “being able to recognize that things may not go according to plan, how to adapt and still be able to be successful, especially in what can be considered an ambiguous environment.”

As an avid downhill skier, long-distance runner and outdoor enthusiast, Rhoads has never been one to stay idle for very long. “What keeps me away from my desk is engaging with my team,” she said. “I do travel quite a bit, and I find that engaging with front-line workers – folks that are at the core of our operation – I really value that.”

What’s ahead for 2019?

When Air Cargo World spoke with Rhoads, Amazon was on the cusp of peak season activity, but there was a distinct calmness about her demeanor. “It’s always an exciting time for us,” she said. “But we spend a lot of time planning for our peak season. The outcome is usually indicative of the amount of effort’s that’s put in.”

True to form, she was not thinking much beyond the immediate tasks at hand. Her outlook for 2019, she said, will have to wait until the peak runs like clockwork first. “But it’s not too early to start thinking about 2019,” she acknowledged. “We saw it in 2017 and this year, we’ve experienced quite a bit of growth. I think I need to make sure that we, as an organization, are prepared to handle that growth – whatever that may be.”

Much of next year will be spent on preliminary work for Amazon’s CVG hub, so that it no longer has to share DHL’s sorting equipment. “We’ll make sure that we’re ready for a 2021 launch,” she said.

For the most part, Rhoads said she prefers to rely on her experienced, cross-functional team to come up with day-to-day decisions. “But for some of the larger decisions that really drive our business, there have been particular points where I maybe provide a little rudder-steering in there,” she added. “But that’s the fun part about my job.”

After making countless practice runs landing on a moving speck on the ocean – and learning from mistakes until it was done right – Sarah Rhoads will likely continue guiding Amazon Air with a steely nerve and a steady hand.

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