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Four aerial firefighting companies have protested the U.S. Forest Service’s decision to award two next-generation air tanker contracts to Missoula-based Neptune Aviation.

Neptune received the $8.7 million annual contract for two BAe-146 jet fire bombers on Dec. 13. The challengers, AeroAir LLC, Coulson Aviation USA, Minden Air Corp. and 10 Tanker Air Carrier LLC, each filed a protest on Dec. 23 with the Government Accountability Office.

GAO attorney Gary Allen said he could not discuss the protest claims Tuesday, because they contained “protected information” that couldn’t be disclosed until after a decision was rendered. That decision is due by March 28, but Allen said he expected a resolution would be reached before then.

Neptune Chief Executive Officer Ron Hooper said he believed the challenge involved the Forest Service’s decision to offer Neptune “other than full and open competition” contracts after three of five next-generation aircraft providers failed to deliver new fire-bombers last year.

“The government must justify using a sole-source contract based on a determination that Neptune had vital capacity it couldn’t get elsewhere,” Hooper said. “Apparently the government didn’t have confidence that three of the five contractors could deliver. Four of the five companies filed protests, even though three of those five did not perform.”

The Forest Service chose Neptune as one of its original four next-generation tanker providers to begin replacing a dwindling fleet of mainly Korean War-era tankers. 10 Tanker and Coulson protested that award, and in a new round of contracts, those companies replaced Neptune in the awards.

But only two of the seven expected airplanes reached the runway in the 2013 fire season: One of 10 Tanker’s DC-10 jumbo jets and Coulson’s C-130Q. AeroAir and Minden both failed to get their new tankers certified for firefighting before fall. So did the fifth next-generation contractor, Aero Flite (which has not filed a protest).

In 2010, Neptune started bringing BAe-146s to its fleet of six aging P2-V propeller-driven bombers. One of those jets was added into the Forest Service’s five-year “legacy aircraft” contract that covered Neptune’s P2-Vs in 2013, while the second got a one-season-only “additional equipment” contract. Last year, it acquired two more BAe-146s, and equipped those with bigger retardant tanks than its first two jets. A fifth BAe should arrive in February, Hooper said.

“The Forest Service has issued cure notices to those operators who are in default on their contracts,” Hooper said. “Three of them said they’d have their aircraft by June. But what was the assurance they gave last year that their planes would be ready?”

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10 Tanker President Rick Hatton said his company protested the Forest Service decision because it believed the agency should have opened a new competitive bid rather than give Neptune a sole-source award.

“The government asserted there were no next-generation assets available that weren’t already contracted, and that wasn’t the case,” Hatton said. “We for one had a plane available.”

10 Tanker has one DC-10 on a next-generation long-term contract, but its second plane only has a less-lucrative “call-when-needed” year-to-year contract. The DC-10s carry 11,600-gallon payloads, while most of the other next-generation planes haul between 3,000 and 3,500 gallons.

The Forest Service has until Jan. 20 to respond to the protests, and the protesters then get 10 days to file rebuttals. The GAO then has 60 days to issue a decision.

“We thought we had this all cleared up, but this puts us back in limbo,” Hooper said. “We’re going forward with our plans and our winter maintenance, and we’ll have to wait and see what the Forest Service says. We’re on the sidelines.”

That winter schedule includes installing the new 3,000-gallon tanks inside Neptune’s original two BAe jets as well as routine maintenance on the six active P2-V planes. The new five-nozzle tanks are expected to solve problems of capacity and coverage in Neptune’s earlier three-nozzle design.

The Forest Service next-generation contracts are designed for awardees to add more planes over the years. The agency wants to field between 18 and 28 large air tankers for wildfire work. Neptune’s contract, if fully executed over nine years, could be worth $141.7 million.

10 Tanker’s Hatton said part of the reason he was protesting was the great expense of bringing a new firefighting airplane into service.

“The people who’ve bid did so with the understanding there will be some future that’s bigger than the past,” Hatton said. “That is the only way to draw private capital. Nobody wants to just fly one airplane. Most of our business plans in the industry rely on multiple airplanes on multi-year contracts. If the Forest Service has a finite amount of money, which they always will have, they can only allocate that to so many entities. If they split it too finely, they won’t draw anyone out of the woodwork.”

Meanwhile, wildfires in Northern California last week grew big enough to demand aerial tanker support, marking an unhelpfully early start to the 2014 fire season.

“Looking at what the weather’s been like here, we could be seeing an early start,” Hooper said. “We could be flying in mid-February.”

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Reporter Rob Chaney can be reached at 523-5382 or at rchaney@missoulian.com.

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