On Feb. 23, Atlas Air Flight 3591 crashed in Texas, killing all three onboard. The plane was contracted to move Amazon cargo by the e-commerce giant's growing logistics arm.
Atlas Air pilots Capt. Ricky Blakely and First Officer Conrad Jules Aska, as well as Mesa Airlines Capt. Sean Archuleta, who was riding in the jump seat, died in the crash. And, in the weeks before the accident, pilots who were contracted for Amazon Air told Business Insider that an accident was likely.
The surviving family of Aska, who died at 44, claims in a new lawsuit that negligence from Atlas Air and Amazon, as well as Florida-based companies F&E Aircraft Maintenance and Flightstar Aircraft Services, "directly and proximately caused the death" of the pilot. The family is suing the four companies in a lawsuit filed on Sept. 19 in the 11th Circuit Court — a federal court.
"Conrad was the leader of the family," Elliot Aska, who is the late pilot's brother, told Business Insider. "We looked to him. He was a strong, vibrant person."
Conrad is survived by several family members including his daughter Kayla Aska, who is 19 and starts college this year. "That's something now she has to experience in a whole different way," Elliot said. "She won't have the privilege of his guidance."
What the lawsuit alleges
Atlas Air, which is contracted to fly Amazon Air's planes along with air cargo company ATSG, employed Aska. The company, according to the federal suit, "owed a duty to the decedent to maintain and use the subject aircraft with the highest degree of care, including a nondelegable duty to ensure its airworthiness, and to exercise the highest degree of care to prevent injury of any kind."
The airline also failed to ensure pilots were well-trained or well-rested, the suit states. The lawsuit claims that Amazon also played a role in those actions.
"Amazon knew or should have known that its history of overworking pilots and forcing them to fly under fatiguing conditions and with little rest time would create an unreasonable risk of harm or death to persons, like decedent, aboard the aircraft," the suit states.
An Atlas Air spokesperson said the airline does not comment on litigation.
"We remain heartbroken by the loss of Flight 3591 that claimed the lives of two Atlas Air pilots, and a third pilot from another airline that was a passenger," an Atlas Air spokesperson told Business Insider in a statement. "Their families continue to be our top priority."
Amazon did not respond to a Business Insider request for comment.
Meanwhile, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) reportedly suspects that pilot error caused the fatal Feb. crash, rather than aircraft malfunctions.
The NTSB said on March 5 that the Boeing 767-300 cargo jet entered some turbulence shortly before the plane's crash landing. Then, the engines increased to maximum thrust, after which the airplane pitch turned slightly up. That "startled the cockpit crew," The Journal reported, citing several sources familiar with the details.
The crew then tried to push the nose of the plane down. At a 49-degree angle, this caused an unusually steep descent, The Journal reported.
Pilots previously told Business Insider that the actions taken during the flight were "perplexing" and not akin to typical flight maneuvers.
"I can't imagine," a pilot and former aviation-safety officer in the US military told Business Insider. "It sounds so off to me — totally counter to my instincts and training. I'd kick the autopilot and auto throttles off pretty darn fast."
Atlas Air had a number of operational hiccups in the past year alone
It's still not known what the cause of the Feb. 23 crash was. But Atlas Air has had a number of questionable incidents in the past year.
In October, a Boeing 747 cargo plane operated by Polar Air, a subsidiary of Atlas Air, veered off the airway at the Northern Kentucky Airport. It came to stop on the soft ground. No other plane on that day had a similar landing.
An Atlas Air Boeing 767 cargo airline had a hard landing in July at the Portsmouth, New Hampshire airport. Creases around the fuselage and "substantial damage to the aircraft" was found after the flight inspection.
A history of labor issues at Atlas Air
Thirteen pilots from the airlines that Amazon Air contracts with told Business Insider that their pay and benefits are below industry standards. All but one of the pilots said that means those who work with Amazon Air tend to be less experienced. Most of these pilots have asked to remain anonymous for fear of retribution.
"It's a ticking time bomb," Captain Robert Kirchner, Atlas pilot and executive council chairman of Teamsters Local 1224, told Business Insider weeks before the crash.
Kirchner and other Atlas Air pilots said the company, which contracts to Amazon, DHL, and other carriers, tends to overwork their pilots.
"They don't recognize pilot fatigue," Kirchner previously told Business Insider. "They think it's people goofing off. We have to constantly show them some of these schedules. Ninety-nine percent of the time, we're able to prove to them that this is a fatiguing schedule."
Pilots who fly for Amazon Air have been locked in a three-year-long struggle with their employers to secure a new work contract.
As for the late pilot Aska, his brother told Business Insider that the Antiguan native was known as an activist in his community. "He was an infectious person who touched so many people," Elliot said.