It seems that the forthcoming holiday fulfillment surge will again present challenges for some industry supply chains. The Independent Pilots Association, the labor union representing 2500 pilots for UPS has called for a strike vote among its UPS members, as contract talks enter their fifth year of negotiations. Talks among UPS and its pilots have been assisted by federal mediators since early 2014.

A union statement declares: “But after four years of contract talks with UPS, we’ve reached a point where UPS needs to hear loud and clear from our membership that they are willing to do whatever it takes to secure an industry leading contract.”

The vote is currently scheduled for October 23 and timing is key, since the vote will come at the near height of the holiday focused shipping surge. In its reporting, The Wall Street Journal indicates that while a full walkout seems unlikely, UPS has plenty to worry about. A UPS spokesperson indicated to the WSJ that the move was a routine show of solidarity in negotiations, and that the global carrier has successfully negotiated four contracts with its pilots, and plans to reach a new agreement as quickly as possible.

The move by the UPS pilots union comes on the heels of the recent tentative settlement of labor contract talks involving FedEx pilots. Negotiations involving the FedEx pilots similarly began extended back to 2011 with renewed negotiations occurring in 2013. A earlier rejection of a contract order invoked a firm response from FedEx senior management.

The air cargo business never really recovered since the global financial crisis of 2008-2009. The entire air freight sector has been impacted, prompting both UPS and FedEx to scale back air assets and revise route scheduling.

Unlike pilots within traditional passenger airlines, air freight pilots fly long routes or segments, mostly in the middle of the night, and face a number of added safety concerns with the composition and mix of freight carried by aircraft.

In 2009, a FedEx cargo plane enroute from Guangzhou China was involved in a fiery crash while attempting to land in Tokyo, killing both pilots.  Hazardous cargo was suspected. On August 14, 2013, a UPS cargo plane bound for Birmingham Alabama from Louisville Kentucky crashed in the early morning hours just short of the airport runway, tragically killing both pilots on-board. Pilot fatigue was cited as a possible factor.

In 2013, former U.S. Airways pilot hero Chesley ‘Sully’ Sullenberger co-authored a Wall Street Journal editorial calling for safeguards for avoiding pilot fatigue. The editorial pointed out that while U.S. FAA standards addressing fatigue standards for pilots employed by passenger airlines would soon be in effect, these requirements did not apply to pilots of cargo planes. The premise of these authors was that by excluding cargo pilots, who often fly continuous long inter-continental routes, compromised the mission for making safety the first priority for aviation.

For retailers and other B2C and B2B fulfillment operational teams, the threat of a UPS pilot strike has to be of some consideration, especially in light of other global capacity cutbacks in air, ocean container or surface trucking. During last year’s disruptive slowdown involving U.S. West Coast ports, many shippers had limited options, and turned to air carriers to move goods to needed holiday fulfillment channels. Contingency planning is wise, since waiting to the last minute for events to unfold will likely result in limited options.

We trust that UPS and its pilots will come to some form of resolution prior to October.