Protest could delay Forest Service's update of aging air fleet

Posted: May 23, 2013

Written by

Phil Taylor, E&E News PM
BAe-146 fire-bomber

A Missoula, Mont.-based air tanker company has protested a Forest Service plan to issue contracts for seven new air tankers, potentially hampering the agency's ability to battle wildfires well into the 2013 season.

Neptune Aviation Services yesterday protested the contracts to the Government Accountability Office, arguing that it was unfairly excluded from the agency's latest contracts announced earlier this month.

The company had won contracts for two of its BAe-146 fire-bomber jets last August, but other contractors challenged the award.

Last week, the Forest Service said it intends to award new contracts to five companies -- but not Neptune -- for seven "next generation" wildfire air tankers that can fly faster and carry more flame retardant than most of its legacy fleet (E&ENews PM, May 6).

"We were good enough last time, but we're not good enough this time," said Neptune Chief Operating Officer Dan Snyder, who said there were no substantive changes to the company's most recent bid.

Last August's awards were protested by 10 Tanker Air Carrier LLC and Coulson Aircrane USA, each of which were included in last week's contracts.

The Neptune protest could take up to 100 days to resolve, significantly delaying the agency's ability to acquire the new aircraft, which offer a critical initial attack to slow the spread of new blazes.

The agency -- which will have 5 percent fewer firefighters and engines on hand this summer due to the sequester -- is expecting another severe wildfire season, fueled by drought, insect epidemics and overstocked Western forests.

Sen. Mark Udall (D-Colo.) criticized the protest.

"Wildfire season is coming, and I refuse to force Colorado communities to watch as preventable and containable wildfires are allowed to threaten lives and homes simply because of contractors' squabbles," Udall said. "Make no mistake about it: This is an emergency, and this shortsighted protest will leave the U.S. Forest Service with outdated, Korean War-era air tankers to fight modern mega-fires."

But Snyder said only one of the seven contracted air tankers will be ready within the next 30 days, so the Neptune protest will not significantly hamper the agency.

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