Contract for new aerial tankers halted over ‘squabble’ as fire season approaches

Contract for new aerial tankers halted over ‘squabble’ as fire season approaches

17 May 2013

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USA — Don’t count on the nation’s newest, fastest fleet of air tankers to fly over wildfires anytime soon.

The contracts for seven new aerial wildfire tankers – as well as plans to possibly quadruple the new fleet’s size in the coming years – ground to a halt this week after a company with a losing bid appealed the U.S. Forest Service’s contract decision on its newest slurry-dropping planes.

The appeal could keep the fleet grounded until Aug. 26, the last day for the U.S. Government Accountability Office to make a ruling.

The decision by Neptune Aviation Services Inc. to protest the contract award on Thursday left the nation in the same situation as it was in 2012. That year, Neptune won a contract and two other companies protested, keeping seven planes grounded while a dwindling tanker fleet – one relying heavily on Korean War-era aircraft – were left to handle the third-largest wildfire season in more than 50 years.

The Forest Service began the 2012 season with 11 large air tankers. It has eight this year, about one-fifth of the number it had a decade ago.

Sen. Mark Udall, D-Colo., called on the Forest Service to override the appeal before homes and lives are threatened “simply because of contractors’ squabbles.”

The agency can strike down contract appeals only when the contract “is in the best interest of the United States,” or “urgent and compelling circumstances that significantly affect the interests of the United States” keep the agency from waiting, said Ralph White, managing associate general counsel for procurement law with the GAO.

The contention over the five-year contract for new tankers – often referred to as the “next generation” fleet – stems from the heavy front-end costs required to vie for these contracts, experts and onlookers said Friday.

Often, companies must invest millions of dollars on the hope that they finally cash in on a highly-competitive contract, said Bill Gabbert, former executive director of the International Association of Wildland Fire, who now pens a blog titled Wildfire Today.

“These vendors invest millions of dollars in advance not knowing if they’ll get a contract or not,” Gabbert said.

But experts also pinned blame on the Forest Service in its handling of the contract solicitation – beginning with an apparent lack of direction in the Forest Service’s plans for its new fleet.

“It’s just a process that seems to be never ending,” said Chuck Bushey, who was president of the International Association of Wildland Fire from 2007 through 2011.

The protest by Neptune came amid concerns that the company wouldn’t be able to survive without the contract, said Dan Snyder, chief operating officer for Neptune.

Neptune supplies seven of the eight tankers in the Forest Service’s existing fleet – otherwise known as the “legacy” fleet.

The “legacy” fleet is expected to be fielded until there are “adequate numbers of next generation large air tankers,” the U.S. Forest Service said in a statement in early May.

“Our reason for filing the protest is longevity for the organization and desire to produce our products,” Snyder said.

He said the company would operate air tankers for five more years and then wouldn’t have a customer.

The company made the list during last year’s “next generation” contract announcement, but following an appeal by two other companies was left out of the Forest Service’s plans this year.

Coulson Aviation (USA) Inc. and 10 Tanker Air Carrier LLC protested the Forest Service’s contract decision in 2012. As a result, the contracting process was halted, then re-started with a request for new proposals.

10 Tanker Air Carrier was awarded the contract this year, and Coulson Aircrane (USA) Inc. – which has the same owner as Coulson Aviation – also received a contract, said Tom Harbour, Forest Service’s director of fire and aviation management. The five-year contracts have an option to renew for an additional five years.

Neptune, which employed about 100 people as of early May, invested more than $3 million into research and development for its latest fleet, not including aircraft purchases, Snyder said.

Neptune bid to initially supply two BAE-146 “next generation” airplanes capable of carrying 3,000 gallons of retardant, though the proposal allowed for that number to grow in future years.

“We’re definitely in debt preparing for this contract,” he said.

U.S. Forest Service officials did not return repeated calls Friday for comment on the appeal, as well as why the agency wanted until May – the beginning of wildfire season – to announce the contracts.

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