With the official kickoff of the Christmas shopping season several days away, Amazon Prime Air is about to be put through the most stringent test of all—one that will last all the way until Christmas Eve, as analysts predict record sales for the behemoth online retailer this year. And that’s up from the 600 million parcels they already deliver annually (according to one estimate). A cargo airline that contracts through a number of different airlines, Amazon Prime Air is also the arm of the company working on their the drone-based delivery system—which has long been in development after its initial announcement in 2013, but has essentially stalled due to U.S. airspace regulations. Could this season be the sign for the company to concentrate on its cargo operations, and give up the ghost on drones?
Interestingly enough, Amazon’s Prime Air cargo airline isn’t actually a cargo airline at all, or any other kind of airline for that matter. The shiny Boeing 767 freighters enrobed in the signature Amazon Prime insignia are actually leased to Amazon and operated by three other certificated FAA Part 121 air carriers (airlines), that are under contract with Amazon. Atlas Air, ABX Air and Air Transport International currently operate a combined 32 Boeing 767-300F aircraft for Amazon out of the company’s Cincinnati-Northern Kentucky International Airport cargo hub. The retailer plans to have a total of 40 aircraft operating by end of 2018. Amazon can also exercise options to purchase a 20 percent stake in the airlines that currently operate the Prime Air fleet. Many speculate that Amazon might, at some point, consider purchasing one of its contract airlines outright. This maneuver happens quite frequently with newly launched air carriers, as they can legally skirt around the lengthy air carrier FAA certification process by essentially purchasing an entire existing airline—along with its valid FAA air carrier certificate. At its Cincinnati hub, Amazon is investing 1.5 billion dollars into making it a state of the art transportation hub.
Amazon’s public relations and marketing department did what they do best when they first announced the 30 minute drone delivery service back in 2013. The world’s media loved the idea, which in turn generated lots of free publicity and buzz for Prime Air, as well as Amazon. The company even went as far as patenting what they call an “airborne fulfillment center.”
Now, four years later, Amazon is making progress abroad with its drone testing, while here in the U.S., it seems to be moving forward at a snail’s pace. Especially since the FAA enacted regulations on small unmanned aircraft systems in 2016, which related specifically to the operation of commercial drones. The regulations specify, among other things, that a commercial drone must be within line-of-site of the operator at all times.
The bottom line is that while it does seem feasible that perhaps in a few years we might see Amazon Prime Air making 30 minute drone deliveries in rural international locations (such as within the U.K., where they are currently conducting drone testing) it’s unlikely it will happen in or around major metropolitan areas in the U.S. any time soon. Presently drones can’t even operate in New York City proper, even for recreational use, unless a waiver is granted.
So while the general public thinks that Prime Air drones will be delivering to them any day now, the reality is quite different. A drone operator must be aware of surface sustained wind, gusts of wind, visibility, temperature, precipitation and any local or federal flight restrictions at departure, arrival and on the precise drone route of flight. The problem is that we can verify surface weather conditions at airports or at weather reporting stations, in which they have automated weather observations, but along the route they are few and far between. Amazon’s aim of having thousands of drones operating in U.S. skies every day does not really seem viable in light of these regulations.
Lastly, speaking on the security perspective. We currently have armored cars manned with armed guards picking up cash from various business all around the country . Now just for a second, imagine the Amazon Prime Air drones zipping around at 100 feet, carrying new iPhones. Wonder what the bad guys would do? I don’t know, but skeet shooting pops into mind.
Kyle Bailey is a television news aviation analyst, pilot, and former FAA Safety Team Representative. Follow him on Twitter: @Kyleb973.