U.S. Forest Service officials decided to repost a contract request for next-generation firefighting planes, after losing bidders protested the initial $261 million award.

That means Missoula-based Neptune Aviation and three other air tanker operators must refile their proposals for jet-powered aircraft to replace Korean War-vintage P2V tankers. Neptune has already put two BAe-146 jets in service this year on interim contracts, and hoped to add several more under the new arrangement.

“We received an email from the Forest Service contracting officer late Friday afternoon,” Neptune President Dan Snyder said on Monday. “We haven’t digested what they want us to do different. There are 31 different points as amendments, but we don’t know what they want us to change.”

Coulson Aviation of Port Alberni, B.C., and 10 Tanker of Victorville, Calif., challenged the Forest Service’s contracting process in August. The government had until early October to respond.

10 Tanker flies two DC-10 jumbo jets converted to drop retardant. Coulson Aviation flies Canadian-built water-scooper planes and has proposed converting surplus military C-130 transport planes into retardant bombers.

The Forest Service rejected bids from jumbo-jet companies like 10 Tanker and for water-scooper planes that don’t use retardant. However, it employed both kinds of planes this fire season on call-when-needed contracts. 10 Tanker president Rick Hatton previously told the Missoulian such contracts weren’t economically viable if he was going to keep his big planes available for firefighting.

As originally awarded to Neptune, the five-year contract would have modernized the private fleet of large air tankers that drop retardant slurry on forest fires. Safety concerns reduced the available planes from 44 in 2002 to 10 this year. Nine of those belong to Neptune: two BAe-146s and seven P2Vs.

Under the new guidelines, the Forest Service wanted planes that could deliver at least 3,000 gallons of retardant. P2Vs can haul just 1,500 gallons, while BAes carry 3,000. The DC-10 can carry 11,600 gallons of retardant, but faced questions of affordability and maneuverability.

Nevada-based Minden Aviation fielded the 10th P2V and was considering bringing on a new BAe-146 this year. It won permission to add two of the new jets in 2012 and 2013.

Aero Air LLC of Hillsboro, Ore., was approved to add two McDonnell-Douglas MD-87s under the protested contract. Aero-Flite Inc. of Kingman, Ariz., was going to add an RJ85, which is a slightly larger version of the BAe-146.

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According to Forest Service figures, Neptune had the most expensive five-year bid. Each bidder’s cost for daily plane availability and flight time was slightly different, and varied from year to year.

For example, Aero-Flite had the most expensive per-day rate in the first year at $29,661, followed by Neptune’s $27,978, Aero Air’s $23,614 and Minden’s $23,400. But Aero-Flite had the cheapest flight rate of $5,719, compared to Neptune’s $9,520.

By the fifth year, Neptune’s daily rate climbed to $32,115, while Minden was cheapest with $25,400. The other two providers didn’t post rates for the fifth year.

Snyder said he didn’t know the details of other companies’ pricing strategy. As for Neptune, he said its BAes would be maintained at airliner standards, which is the most expensive level. Aircraft operators have the option of limiting their planes to more defined missions, which result in cheaper maintenance standards. But that means such planes can’t be used to haul cargo, passengers or other commercial activity.

Neptune is also bracing for the end of its contract for P2V planes. Snyder said the Forest Service has released a draft contract for future use of the prop planes, which Neptune intends to pursue. The company wants to gradually replace the P2Vs with BAes.

As of Monday, all but two of Neptune’s planes were working on fires. Snyder said Oregon, Washington, Utah and California all appear to have some fire season left to burn this year.

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