A federal judge on Wednesday ordered pilots for a cargo airline that delivers Amazon packages to go back to work.
The judge in Cincinnati said it was in the public's interest to end the strike because holiday shoppers expect to receive their packages on time.
"Imagine Christmas without Amazon!" U.S. District Court Judge Timothy S. Black wrote in his ruling.
About 250 pilots for ABX Air went on strike early Tuesday in a dispute over working conditions and time off. Dozens of flights and more than 1 million pounds of cargo were held up.
The airline went to court to end the strike, saying its timing threatened to leave millions of dollars' worth of freight undelivered to homes and stores during the Christmas shopping season.
ABX parent Air Transport Services Group Inc. said pilots would begin returning to work Wednesday night. The Teamsters union, which represents the pilots, said the strike was causing ABX to cancel about 75 flights a day. Besides Amazon, ABX's other major customer is Deutsche Post AG's DHL delivery service.
Analysts said an extended strike would have forced Amazon to put more of its deliveries in the hands of UPS, FedEx and the U.S. Postal Service.
The strike's impact would be short-lived — a few days, said Satish Jindel, president of logistics adviser SJ Consulting Group. "I don't think it's going to disrupt e-commerce or Amazon," he said.
Even before the judge's ruling, Morningstar retail analyst R.J. Hottovy noted that Amazon and other retailers have contingency plans to deal with disruptions of any sort — such as weather and strikes — during the holidays. Amazon has spread its deliveries among a larger number of carriers, including the post office down and small providers, he said.
Amazon has been trying to reduce its dependence on UPS and FedEx since those companies delivered millions of packages late during the 2013 holiday season. This year, Amazon leased planes from ABX and another cargo carrier, Atlas Air, and began building its own ground-transport system.
The surge in online shopping — which is growing faster than in-store shopping — and promises of free shipping have put additional stress on delivery companies like ABX.
The ABX pilots say management violated their contract to keep planes flying. The union says the company is denying vacation time for some pilots and compensatory time off for others just to keep all its planes flying.
"We are doing all sorts of emergency shifts because we don't have enough people," said Tim Jewell, a union officer who flies Boeing 767 jets for ABX. "It's taking a tremendous toll on our families."
Jewell said pilots will abide by the judge's order and return to work, "but manning and staffing will continue to be a problem."
ABX argued that the union was violating federal law by conducting a strike before checking off the necessary steps that federal law requires before a work stoppage in the airline industry.
ABX President John Starkovich said the company would continue negotiations and arbitration to settle its differences with the union.
Labor relations at railroads and airlines are governed by a federal law that dates to the 1920s and makes strikes difficult. Most airlines haven't had a strike in many years, although pilots for Spirit Airlines walked off the job in 2010.
4:50 p.m.: This article was updated to include Judge Timothy S. Black's ruling that ordered pilots back to work.