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  • What Amazon needs to do in the air is driven by the ultimate reach and purpose of the courier on the ground.
  • Amazon has two options for the path ahead. Either way, it needs more aircraft.
  • Competing with FedEx and UPS means diversifying into smaller aircraft, while perfecting its own rapid retail delivery means bigger freighters.

Read part one and part two of our look inside the rise of Amazon Air.

Every weekday evening in the United States, nearly 1,000 aircraft simultaneously move across the country without a single paying passenger on board. This fleet of aircraft is dedicated solely to the movement of packages retrieved at their origin that afternoon to be delivered the next day to virtually anywhere in the continental United States. For the still unimpressed, this complex system has been built with the ability to accept a shipment early in the evening on the east coast of the country, to deliver by 10:30 am the following morning in a rural town on the west coast.

The chorus of equipment, staff, and systems in place to support this 1,000 aircraft-strong fleet, further adds to the complexity of this nightly orchestration. Yet, beyond the massive systems we know as the overnight aviation networks of FedEx and UPS, further, deeper complexity awaits on the ground. The system is complete, not only upon the arrival of the aircraft but in coordination with an immense ground network to accept packages from anywhere in the country and deliver them everywhere else. At the core of this ground network is the individual courier, the proverbial driver of it all.

Read: Amazon is building an empire in the sky, but it’s no FedEx or UPS

The simple pick-up and delivery of individual packages remains the pacesetter for the express networks. In fact, the aircraft fleets themselves are largely dictated by the limitations of the individual couriers. Whether an airport is served by FedEx is largely determined by the range of ground transportation to ultimately reach the furthest customer to consistently drop off their deliveries as early as 10:30 am, and still offer a later pick-up time in the afternoon in time to make it back to the aircraft for that evening.

What, then, happens when a new player – a former and current customer – enters the space to move their own boxes overnight? In this third and final part of our deep dive on Amazon Air, TAC Analysis examines the different rules by which Amazon can provide their own new overnight service and what the future aircraft fleet may look like as the new air cargo player grows.

Read: Retail, not logistics, is Amazon Air’s lodestar in UPS & FedEx fight

Amazon’s rise comes against the backdrop of a system in place for almost 40 years, yet with steadily-growing aircraft fleet numbers and capacities. The overall process has changed little. The limitation has always been the inseparable relationship between distance and time – moving boxes long distances within a limited time.

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Courtney Miller is Managing Director of Analysis for The Air Current. Miller most recently spent 10-years with Bombardier Aerospace, serving as director, North America sales for the company’s commercial aircraft line and led airline marketing and analysis for the western hemisphere for airlines in North and South America and the community of global aircraft lessors. Miller is also founder of visualapproach.io, where he merged industry history and analysis with insightful and beautiful data visualization to illustrate contemporary trends. Miller is a 3,000-hour U.S. airline pilot and began his career flying for U.S. regional airline Comair. He holds a Masters of Aeronautical Science from Embry-Riddle University and a Bachelors of Science in Aviation Technology from Purdue University. He is based in the Dallas, Texas Metroplex.

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