Having grown up in the package delivery business, Julie Thomas used to have an old saying about her industry. Whenever someone debated its longevity, Thomas would crack, "One thing you can't do is beam me a package."
Thomas, who's now the vice-president of her family business, Cincinnati-based Priority Dispatch, saw her joke turned on its head earlier this week. In a segment that aired Sunday on "60 Minutes," Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos revealed that the online retail giant was experimenting with delivery by drone.
Considering her drivers perform their jobs with standard commercial vans, Thomas admits she was taken aback by the footage of an Amazon package dropping in from the air. But she wasn't unnerved by it, she said.
"It's a cool thing to see. But we've been around a long time and we'll continue to be around a long time," said Thomas, who's a board member of her trade group, the Customized Logistics and Delivery Association. "When the fax machine came into being, people said it would change the industry, and it didn't. The same with email, and then scanning."
Of course, drones would be fundamentally different from those advancements in communication, since rather than simply eliminating paperwork or dispatchers, they would be performing the actual deliveries. Could the technological advancements that have been such a boon to last-mile delivery also be the industry's undoing?
Parcel carriers aren't exactly freaking out over the Amazon news. For starters, even though drone delivery is no longer pie-in-the-sky thinking, it would be years before the technology became widespread in the U.S. Bezos suggested Amazon would be able to launch its service in five years. In reality, it could be much longer. There are a raft of safety issues to be hashed out and, of course, the Federal Aviation Administration would have to set rules for the use of the technology and give Amazon its blessing.
Workers who actually spend their days delivering packages know they do things in the course of a job that a drone could never do. On a popular forum for United Parcel Service workers called Brown Cafe, drivers have mostly scoffed at the idea of drones replacing them anytime soon, though some acknowledge it's a reasonable expectation for the distant future.
"Would love to see a tiny helicopter deliver inside an office building, apartment building or a 70 pounder…" wrote one driver.
"What a colossal [sic] waste of money. There's just no way this works. And I'm one that thinks our job won't exist in 30-40 years," said another.
But a third cautioned: "What sounds like science fiction today may be everyday stuff tomorrow."
Brown Cafe is run anonymously by a woman named Cheryl. In an email exchange, Cheryl told The Huffington Post that her first thought upon seeing the Amazon report was that the technology could be quite useful in more rural areas, or at a massive facility like UPS Worldport, the company's international air hub in Louisville, Ky.
But when it comes to delivering in denser areas, Cheryl said she doesn't believe drones will be more cost-effective than hired hands, at least not anytime soon. Setting aside safety issues, how would a drone handle bulky packages destined for an apartment building with hundreds of residents?
"It really doesn't seem likely that they will be capable of delivering in suburban settings or cities with multistory buildings," she said. "The most obvious reasons that the drones in their current state of development are unlikely to have much impact on UPS drivers is their 5 lb weight limitation, the law enforcement issues and an assortment of security issues."
Eventually, drones will probably eliminate some jobs in the package delivery world while creating others, Cheryl added. "Until we get a better idea of the drones' future capabilities," she wrote, "it's difficult to predict how much this it will impact the work and job security of UPS drivers."
UPS apparently believes it may have a place for drones in its business model, since it's already doing research on the matter. In a statement to HuffPost, a spokeswoman said the company is always trying to innovate.
"The commercial use of drones is an interesting technology and we’ll continue to evaluate it," spokeswoman Kara Gerhardt Ross said in an email. "UPS invests more in technology than any other company in the delivery business, and we’re always planning for the future."
A FedEx spokesman was more coy. Without confirming or denying that the company was working on a drone program, spokesman Shea Leordeanu said it was looking to the future.
"While we can't speculate about this particular technology, I can say that making every customer experience outstanding is our priority, and anything we do from a technology standpoint will be with that in mind," he wrote in an email.
Automation has already helped eliminate jobs in the letter and package delivery businesses in recent years. Plenty of warehouse duties are now done by machine, including at Amazon facilities, and much of the sorting that was performed by U.S. Postal Service employees is now automated. Various plans for postal reform call for the early retirement of even more USPS workers.
The volume of first-class letters has dropped off sharply with the rise in online bill pay, putting a considerable dent in the postal service's revenues. The delivery of packages has been far more promising, with more and more people shopping online rather than in brick-and-mortar stores. But it's possible the use of drone delivery by the likes of Amazon and UPS would undermine those gains.
For Jamie Partridge, a retired letter carrier and postal service activist, the loss of good-paying union jobs at the postal service has been a concern for years, long before Amazon and UPS revealed they were experimenting with drones. Perhaps that's why Partridge said he hasn't even spent any time pondering what drones could mean for postal carriers.
"All automation displaces and ends union jobs," Partridge said. When it comes to the drones, "We haven't done any serious thinking about it. But I think we really should."