WILMINGTON – Approximately 250 pilots responsible for cargo carrier ABX Air’s flying went on strike early Tuesday morning against their employer, ABX Air, Inc., and will not fly scheduled routes, including those for ABX’s major customers DHL and Amazon.
Striking pilots, represented by the Airline Professionals Association, Teamsters Local 1224, are picketing outside of ABX Air’s headquarters at the Wilmington Air Park and outside DHL’s North American hub, Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport (CVG).
Rick Ziebarth, a professional pilot of 39 years who represents the pilots of ABX in Teamsters Local 1224, said that the main conflict came about over a violation of a status quo of the current contract and that ABX did not resolve their staffing troubles.
“We were trying to get a new contract going, but they violated our current contract,” said Ziebarth.
These conflicts started around July of last year, according to Ziebarth, and have continued. Since they didn’t resolve the issues and hire enough pilots soon enough, this meant further conflicts with pilots being forced to work during off time instead of volunteering to do a job.
“This year is even worse because they didn’t hire enough pilots,” said Ziebarth. “Why would I volunteer to when you’re forcing us,” said Ziebarth.
There was no motivation to protest around the holiday season, according to Ziebarth — the events just happen to coincide with each other.
According to a Nov. 22 press release from from the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, earlier this year, pilots at ABX Air and four other cargo carriers that fly for DHL voted with 99 percent support to strike if it should become necessary.
According to the press release: “For nearly two years, ABX Air, which is owned by Air Transport Services Group (ATSG), has been significantly understaffed, resulting in pilots continuously being forced to work ‘emergency’ assignments on their off time. The situation has risen to the level where the company is illegally violating its contract with pilots by not allowing them to take contractually obligated compensatory time for the forced extra work. Throughout the year and now, especially during the fourth quarter, ABX has been forcing its pilots to fly flights because it had intentionally short-staffed its operations in the face of increased customer demands.
“ABX refused to recall pilots who had been furloughed as a result of DHL’s termination of North American operations several years ago. ABX refused to recall those pilots because it did not want to bring them back and pay them at the top of the pilots’ wage scale, as required by the pilots’ contract. ABX instead extinguished those pilots’ recall rights earlier this year and then tried to hire new pilots who would be paid at the bottom of the pilots’ wage scale. ABX management has acknowledged that its penny-wise, pound foolish scheme backfired, as it waited too long to start hiring additional pilots and actually hired too few pilots. Since then, ABX has been forcing its pilots to fly additional trips and disrupting their schedules in an effort to climb out from the staffing hole it dug for itself.”
Air Transport Services Group, Inc. said in a statement on Tuesday that ABX Air is taking multiple steps to resolve and end “an illegal work stoppage that began today by its pilots represented by the Airline Professionals Association of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, Local 1224.”
“We will seek a court order later today to restore the status quo operating environment, even as we continue discussions with union representatives about specific issues of concern,” ABX Air President John Starkovich said. “We expect the court will uphold our position that the actions taken by the union to refuse work assignments is not legal, and the issues involved constitute a minor dispute to be resolved via arbitration under terms of our current labor agreements.”
At the same time, Starkovich stated, “ABX Air is notifying its customers and other affected parties about temporary interruptions in ABX’s flight operations, allowing them to adjust their networks until pilots return to work and normal flight operations resume. We stand ready to assist our customers in any way we can to minimize any impact on their own operations during this critical holiday period.”
“I take my job as a pilot seriously, and I’m committed to serving ABX Air and our customers, but I’m also a father of a little girl and help care for my aging mother,” said Randy Riesbeck, a longtime ABX pilot, in the press release from the Teamsters. “On numerous occasions I have had to miss my daughter’s school events and previously scheduled medical appointments for my mother, all because ABX Air emergency assigned me to work on a day I had scheduled off. How am I supposed to explain to my daughter why I wasn’t there to see her grow up? How do I explain to my mother that I can’t take her to the doctor?”
The Teamsters’ release states that the company has been forcing many pilots to work weeks at a time, causing stress and strain among hundreds of veteran pilots who have worked at the company for years and that, to date in 2016, pilots have been scheduled to cover over 8,000 emergency assignment days on days they should have had off.
The union states that the carrier operates 45 flights a day for DHL. Amazon customers will also see delays and disruptions. ATSG recently signed a contract with Amazon to fly 20 Prime Air planes by 2018 and is already flying 14 aircrafts – 35 flights a day – for the e-commerce giant.
According to the Teamsters, pilots at other cargo carriers – Atlas Air, Southern Air, Kalitta Air and Polar Air – are expressing their support for the ABX pilots and are committed to not crossing the picket line, should ABX Air call on them to cover the flights grounded due to the strike.
ABX pilots and their union have been raising concerns about the staffing crisis at the company and its impact on customers. U.S. District Judge Timothy S. Black confirmed pilots’ concerns in his recent dismissal of a motion from ABX Air and ATSG for a temporary restraining order against the pilots and their union, according to the union’s release, writing in his ruling: “… by the end of the first quarter of 2016, approximately 40 percent of ABX captains and 33 percent of its first officers had already been forced to fly the contractually allowed emergency assignments.”