Neptune to protest next-generation air tanker contract awards

Neptune Aviation has announced that the company will lodge a protest with the Government Accountability Office over the contracts that the U.S. Forest Service intends to award for next-generation air tankers. On May 6 the USFS said they intended to give contracts to five companies for a total of seven air tankers to provide turbine or jet powered aircraft that can carry more retardant and fly faster than the Korean War vintage “legacy” air tankers such as the P2V that the federal wildfire agencies have been relying on for decades. Neptune did not receive one of the awards even though they have been the primary supplier of air tankers to the federal government for the last several years.

When the next-gen contracts were announced May 6, the pilots of all five Neptune Aviation air tankers that were working and available for fire assignments walked away from their aircraft in California and New Mexico a little after noon. The aircraft were unstaffed until Tuesday morning. Dan Snyder, Neptune’s Chief Operating Officer, said it was done for safety reasons:

We did not want our crews worried about the company’s future, their jobs, BAe program, etc, instead of being 100% mission focused. We took the opportunity to get clear and concise information to them and allow for questions and concerns to be addressed.

This is not the first time contract awards for next-generation air tankers have been contested. The USFS began the contracting process for the newer air tankers November 30, 2011. Almost seven months later on June 13, 2012 they announced awards for four companies, Neptune, Minden, Aero Air, and Aero Flite, to provide a total of seven air tankers. However two companies that were not going to receive contracts, Coulson Aviation and 10 Tanker Air Carrierprotested the awards, and the Government Accountability Office upheld their protest. At that time the contracts had not actually been signed, since negotiations about reimbursement if the contracts were cancelled had not been completed. The USFS went back to the drawing board for four months. They amended and re-announced the solicitation on October 5, 2012 with a response due date of November 1, 2012. The second time the awards were announced last week was seven months after the second solicitation was issued and 523 days after the process first began. If the USFS has to go through a third round of solicitation due to this latest protest, the appearance of next-gen air tankers over wildfires will be delayed for many more months.

The two companies that filed protests following round 1, Coulson and 10 Tanker, both received awards after round 2, which may have given confidence to Neptune to try the same tactic and perhaps force a third round.

Neptune has invested heavily in four BAe-146 aircraft, retired airliners with more than 20 years of service. Two have been converted to air tankers, Tankers 40 and 41, and have interim approval from the Interagency Air Tanker board. But their retardant delivery performance has been criticized, since the last several hundred gallons of retardant does not exit the tanks quickly enough. Neptune thinks they have a fix for the problem and the next two BAe-146s being converted now, Tankers 10 and 01, will have an improved tanking system. They expect to begin drop tests with Tanker 10 no later than June 10 of this year, Ron Hooper, their Chief Executive Officer said. The company will retrofit the tanks in Tankers 40 and 41 with the new variant of the tank next winter. One of them is currently on the USFS legacy contract for this year.

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11 thoughts on “Neptune to protest next-generation air tanker contract awards”

  1. Well I think we all had a feeling this was going to happen. Bill you might want to restart your countdown clock. I have a feeling that we are going to go for round 3 with these next-gen contracts. Which intern will put more ground crews at risk do to the lack of air support.

  2. Does anyone know if and when the awarded operators will be ready for action over a fire? We may already have issues with the Next Gen fleet for this year if those aircraft are not complete.

    1. As of today the only Next Gen tanker in the fleet that is ready to go and approved is the DC-10. The next inline would be the C-130 because they are using the Aero Union Tank system that was installed in the C-130As and it is IAB approved already. Having said that the contract has to be signed before they can be used on that contract.

      1. Matt, good synopsis. However it is not clear to me if Coulson’s Aero Union-designed tank, which Coulson modified, is STILL certified by the IAB after the changes.

        Two of the potential contractors told us they hope to receive their signed contracts in about a week or so. But Neptune’s protest, if upheld by the GAO, could delay that process for days, weeks, or months.

  3. Now while I sure would like to feel all warm and smarmy about 2013 contracts and how the leadership has it all under control……AND is this what Senator Udall all wanted us “respect the decisions of the USFS?”

    Proves that their more uneducated folks trying to get their way into fire aviation without even further knowledge of the contract process and how shabby, for lack of better terms, that it has been run……

    I am pretty happy the operators are using the protest system to their advantage

    Know why?

    The USAF fuel airtanker program Boeing/McD vs EADS to replace “aging” KC 135 and older KC10 Extenders

    Know why?

    The USAF JPATS Beech AT6 Texan II vs Super Tucano for trainers and COIN Counterinsurgency Aircraft

    Know why?
    The other myriads of aviation manufacturers protests due to the “world economy” and one manufacturer coming in at $.01 or is that$.0001 under contract bid?

    So when the USFS contracts office contradicts itself …you know C130A’s are too old …”aging” aircraft issues,” contracting equally as older aircraft from our Northern aviators…..get the drift here??

    So putting a protest to draw more attention may or may not help

    Sending Neptune down the road after knowing full well they are probably the only true operator with more than 1 or 2 aircraft available and this is not dissing whatsoever, Coulson or 10Tanker LLC…is some pure contracting bunk!!

    But is sure sends a message that more 523 days are going to be the norm until there is some true leveling of a playing field

    Let seeeeee heranow….Neptune 7 aircraft…..most all IAB qual’d except for maybe one Bring Another Engine 146

    Coulson with AUC tank…..10 Tanker LLC 2-DC10’s
    Erickson Aero with MD’s not fully “certified”
    Evergreen with a 47….But I am sure contracts elsewhere

    Oh yeah and how about making the IAB process ONE week long when the weather is good…any more than a week…just protecting the jobs of the GS’s and the cup routine….yes, I have read Mr George’s 1973 work and the current Ms Stuter study and yes IT IS labor intensive…as intensive or less so than the what the Helo, SEAT, LAT and VLAT pilots and crews have to train for….

    Paints a picture of why not send it back for protest bid.

    Standing by for day 969……………………………………

  4. I am curious, is there a limit to the total number of aircraft on the Next Gen contract? Why does Neptune’s protest have anything to do with the awards to the other contractors? I would suspect those other contracts could still be awarded, and work through the process with Neptune. It does seem to me, looking at the numbers alone, that that their bid might be non-competitive.

    1. I believe the USFS wants to expand the Next Gen fleet to 20 or so over the life of the contract. That being said, the expansion is only available to company’s that received a line item – so not Neptune.

      I agree, their numbers were high. I just think Neptune got a little overconfident and thought there was no way the USFS would shut them out, no matter what they were trying to charge. Looks like they were wrong (for now).

      1. Looking at the prices for the three companies that we have pricing for on both bids, it looks like Minden and Aero-Air increased and AeroFlite decreased. Any idea what Neptune did, since I can’t find their latest pricing? Does anyone know if they increased or decreased in price.

        Sure seams unfair for all the companies to have their pricing made public then not get an award.

  5. OK, I found the bid Award Abstracts I had seen before. They are on the Missoulan’s Website. I must confess, I’m not sure what the rates mean, I assume MAP is daily availability and Flight rate is hourly on days where they actually fly. I am having trouble making the numbers add up right in my head, comparing the Minden BAe-146 rates and Total Cost Estimates to the 10 Tanker DC-10 numbers Things don’t add up. I wonder if the TCE numbers show something other than just the aircraft, may include retardant used? I also really wonder how the DC-10 can cost less per hour than ANY of the other aircraft, I suspect that 10 Tanker bid low just for the opportunity. I doubt it uses less fuel than a C-130.

    2012 Abstract:

    2013 Abstract:

    1. It is my understanding the tanker 10 flight rate is for 3000 gallons. If you want more the flight rate goes up. I don’t believe points were awarded for more than 5000 gallons. Also all rates are dry, gov. paying directly, and the cost is not reflected in the award. Another point of interest.

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