Amazon Prime Air Drone-Delivery Meetings Turn Tense Amid Delays, New Execs

  • Amazon’s Prime Air team continues to have growing pains as longtime employees war with new hires.
  • At an all-hands in March, some employees expressed frustration over newly hired Boeing execs.
  • Leaders also had to address questions over lack of transparency, high turnover, and launch delays.

Amazon’s Prime Air drone-delivery team continues to experience growing pains as internal conflict, high turnover, and launch delays threaten one of Amazon’s loftiest projects to deliver packages via unmanned aerial vehicles.

These tensions came to a head at an all-hands meeting in March, where Prime Air’s leadership had to answer questions that employees submitted and voted on. These questions zeroed in on these contentious issues, including those between longtime employees and new hires from the aerospace industry, who the former accuse of moving too slowly. They also brought up the division’s high turnover rate, which was 20% in 2020, Insider has learned.

The question that received the most upvotes pointed to a cultural clash between the new executives and existing company structure, according to a transcript of the meeting obtained by Insider.

“One peer remarked that in the last year all four of the individuals in his leadership chain have been replaced by Boeing expats,” the inquiry said, referring to the multiple executives who joined Amazon from Boeing in the past year. “What are we doing to preserve Amazon’s unique culture and principles within Prime Air while building out our org with established industry leaders?”

David Carbon, the vice president of Prime Air and a former Boeing executive who replaced the team’s founding vice president, Gur Kimchi, in 2020, said the use of the word “expats” was “ridiculous,” likening it to refusing to hire people from Microsoft when you need software experts.

“Software expertise comes from companies like that. Likewise, aerospace expertise comes from companies like Boeing,” Carbon said, according to the transcript. “In the words of Jeff B, we are an aerospace org that needs to be steeped in aerospace methods and practices in order to ensure the safety of our products. The secret is to merge that with what is great about Amazon.”

Carbon added: “I don’t make any apologies for the hiring we’re making, and I don’t make any apologies for pivoting Prime Air closer to Amazon.”

The exchange is the latest sign of trouble at Prime Air, Amazon’s most ambitious shipping program, which hopes to deliver packages on customers’ doorsteps using fully electric drones. First disclosed in 2013, Prime Air has struggled to meet its own lofty expectations, in part because of a lack of focus, years of internal conflict, and regulatory obstacles, Insider previously reported. These tensions and those mentioned at the March meeting continue to persist, several employees told Insider.

The team has also faced repeated launch delays and is now aiming to run a soft launch in the third quarter of 2022, according to people familiar with the matter.

The cultural differences between longtime Amazon employees and new hires within Prime Air is also an issue that’s becoming more problematic across the company, as Amazon continues to expand and bring in new people from large, mature businesses — a worrying trend that employees previously told Insider was expected to only worsen amid the biggest leadership upheaval in company history.

In an email to Insider, Amazon’s spokesperson said Prime Air’s attrition rate had improved in recent months.

Prime Air has new leadership and it’s normal for some team members to find new roles as the program transitions from R&D to an operations focus,” the spokesperson said.

Amazon Prime Air_MK27

An Amazon Prime Air drone.

Amazon Prime Air

20% turnover

The tension between Amazon’s homegrown talent and the newly hired aviation-background employees — at least four of the most senior executives have been replaced by Boeing leaders — in Prime Air has been a constant source of conflict, according to several current and former employees who spoke with Insider. 

Most Amazon engineers prefer an “agile” approach to software development, which allows for more flexibility and iteration along the way as they find bugs in the system. But aircraft development traditionally involves a more structured and regulated process, commonly called a “waterfall” approach, these people said.

That difference has created multiple setbacks in Prime Air’s drone design and regulatory approval, which have led to frequent timeline adjustments, they said. Indeed, during the March meeting, several employees asked about the launch delays. One employee said many decisions were “burning bridges everywhere” and that they were hurting the team’s “ability to meet the existing schedules.”

Another question demanded “clearer leadership on the technical side of the program,” while one employee asked what would happen if the team failed to meet its launch deadline again, internally set for the third quarter of 2022.

“Let’s say worst case scenario and we fail to meet our alpha launch by Q3 2022. What happens then? Push the goalpost out another two years?” the employee asked.

The leadership team didn’t directly address most of these questions, these employees said. But one question Carbon spent a lot of time discussing had to do with Prime Air’s high turnover rate. He said Prime Air’s attrition in 2020 was 20%, a high number, even compared with other parts of Amazon. The Amazon Robotics team had a 16% attrition rate last year, while the broader operations organization had 14% turnover, Carbon said.

The people who left in 2020 either didn’t want to wait another two years to launch Prime Air or flat out didn’t agree with the team’s long-term plans, Carbon said at the meeting, adding he was looking into recruitment and attrition data three times a week. 

“The good news is we’ve made steady progress despite attrition,” Carbon said. “We can’t sustain 20% — it’s just going to kill our folks.”

The Prime Air team’s turnover rate is now down to 16%, according to people familiar with the matter.

It’s unclear where Prime Air’s development process stands. An internal timeline seen by Insider last year showed its first official trial delivery was scheduled to take place August 2020. That month, Amazon also received clearance from the Federal Aviation Administration to use autonomous drones in a commercial operation.

Many Prime Air employees seem to be in the dark as well with the team’s general progress. One employee said there was “significant confusion” between the engineering teams and business units as to what the future product looked like, adding that “this ambiguity adds enormous risk” to the development of its drone vehicles. Others asked for more regular learning sessions within the team so they could “learn what other teams are working on,” and why the team had recently reduced its presence in the UK and Paris.

“I have no idea what we’ve accomplished as an org in 2020 to bring us closer to delivering to actual customers,” another employee wrote in a question.

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