Dean Talley has some thoughts about how to improve the contracting process for air tankers, which would hopefully improve the value to the customer (the Government) while the vendors would be able to provide better equipment and have a more stable, predictable income.
“The cost of providing equipment, owned, operated and staffed by government entities, be it aircraft, engine, or shovel, is paid for up front by the agency. The value of the investment is recognized and the outcomes they produce are not measured in profit. Yet it is recognized these investments produce public safety and economic benefits.
The cost of providing equipment, owned, operated and staffed by contractors, be it aircraft, engine, or shovel, is paid for up front by the contractor. New developments and technology are paid for by private enterprise. In a competitive marketplace there is no guarantee these investments will be rewarded.
The regenerating fleet of airtankers is presenting new challenges to the models and tactics used to control or suppress wildfires. These changes could be opportunities if the various agencies charged with managing and using these resources address basic systemic issues that have led to higher cost, lost efficiencies, and accidents.
I believe the most basic issue is contracting and a fractured budgeting process pitting, for profit, private industry needs against the interests and objectives of the end users, the boots on the ground.
Exclusive use contracts are typically awarded based on price and performance. Performance as a measure of past availability rates and safety record for example. Over time availability rates have increased but they still do not reflect the cost of providing the resource.
For an airtanker, that would be the ‘fixed’ costs of the asset. The cost of the airframe and retardant system depreciated by the expected life of the airframe and system. The annual maintenance expenses. Training and recurrent training expenses for maintenance and flight crews.
All costs associated with providing an airworthy and current aircraft and crew on the ramp ready to go to work should be reflected in the availability rate. An individual airtanker on an exclusive use contract should not have to fly a single hour to be economically viable. The operational expenses associated with flight; fuel; oil; any item that wears out or times out based on flight time; etc., should be expensed and marked up for minimal profit based on a flight rate.
Contractors could compete.
Call when needed contracts represent the least desirable option for both the agencies and the operators. It leads agencies into reactive scenarios, responding to problems as opposed to possibly preventing or mitigating incidents. The motive is often, once again, budgetary. The suppression costs do not show up initially in a budget. These resources are often employed after their use would be most effective. Expenses associated with their use flow through ‘emergency’ funds or fire scenarios paid for with little accountability.
For the operators it’s often boom or bust. Flight rates are high. You can get rich quick or die on the vine. Is it reasonable to provide an airworthy asset and experienced qualified crew on a wish and a hope for the worst?
Flight pay in the SEAT contracts is another cost shuffled out of budgets into fire scenarios. Pilot compensation for availability, the budgeted expense, is minimal. Often daily availability is comparable to the hourly flight rates up to $500. A pilot can make from $500 up to $4000 on a given day. $500 is budgeted. If success is measured as a fire stopped, failure is profitable. It is a system counterintuitive to logic, ripe for abuse, and conducive to poor decision-making.
If contracts and budgets recognized the value and the need for economic entities to compete and succeed when the outcomes are not easily quantifiable, the appropriate tools could more readily be employed in a timely and efficient fashion. Contracted resources would not be competing with each other for survival. If the firefighters want a VLAT it could load and go without regard for an arbitrary position in rotation. Strategies could evolve knowing what type of tanker to expect. There is no perfect solution but in the last years I’ve seen scenarios where a tanker is ordered and the IC did not know if he would get a SEAT or a VLAT. Lead planes struggle to evolve strategies not knowing what will show up.
There are valid reasons why contracting and budgeting are structured the way they are now. But over time the reasons have become rationalizations for contracts and budgets that do not honestly deal with the realities of business and the needs of the boots on the ground.
I enumerate a number of problems but the common denominator is the type of contracts and the way contracts are written. The problems are a symptom of the flawed contracting process that disguises the actual cost of providing the equipment. It threatens the viability of contractors, creates potential for shoddy or deferred maintenance, and potentially accidents, because of high turnover among crews who struggle without a predictable income.”
Dean Talley is in his 36th year of flying air tankers on fire contracts for Minden, Aero Union, CAL FIRE and others. Currently he is flying a P2V.