After announcing on June 13 the awards for contracts for seven next generation air tankers, the U.S. Forest Service is going back to the drawing board. Their contracting office has notified the nine aircraft companies that submitted bids on the request for proposal (RFP) originally published November 30, 2011, that they will not be executing the awards for the four companies that appeared to be the winners, Neptune Aviation Services, Minden Air Corporation, Aero Air, and Aero Flite.
As Kelly Anderson reported for us on August 7, two companies protested the awards, Coulson Aviation and 10 Tanker Air Carrier.
Contracts for the air tankers were never issued or signed, only “letters of intent” were sent to the four companies. Matt Olson, the USFS contracting officer for the next generation air tankers, told Wildfire Today that the awards were contingent on negotiating with each company a “cancellation ceiling rate”, which would be the amount given to the companies if the government had to cancel the contracts before the scheduled end date. Those negotiations were underway when the awards were protested.
An amendment to the RFP will be issued, and all nine companies that previously submitted proposals, including the four vendors who were notified of pending awards in June, will have an opportunity to submit revised proposals once the amendment is issued.
Mr. Olson said the amendment will be issued either today or early next week and responses will be due about a month later. It most likely will not be posted online. (UPDATE: it was issued to the nine companies today, October 5.) He expects the second generation of awards for the next generation air tankers will be announced early in 2013.
The primary change in the new amendment to the RFP will be to clarify that the air tankers must be able to carry at least 2,400 gallons at sea level at ISA plus 30 degree Celsius.
Now that the USFS has published the dollar amounts of the awards, offering the nine companies the opportunity to revise their bids could result in an interesting dynamic and some very different prices. On the June 13 award announcement, the dollar amounts listed for the first year of the 5-year contract, with options for 5 additional years, were:
BAe-146 (Neptune had the high prices, and Minden the low)
- Daily availability, $27,978 to $23,300
- Hourly flight rate, $9,520 to $7,700
RJ-85, a variant of the BAe-146 (Aero-Flite)
- Daily availability, $29,661
- Hourly flight rate, $5,719
MD-87 (Aero Air)
- Daily availability, $23,614
- Hourly flight rate, $6,600
The above rates are “dry”, and do not include fuel.
The two companies that protested the awards, Coulson and 10 Tanker, would like for their aircraft to be considered more on a cost per DELIVERED gallon of retardant, and not primarily the daily and hourly rates. Coulson has purchased a C-130H and owns the rights to build an Aero Union designed constant-flow tank that could hold up to 5,000 gallons. 10 Tanker’s two DC-10 air tankers carry 11,600 gallons and don’t have to download based on density altitude like all other air tankers.
Using the USFS’s logic of the lowest price for one load of retardant, an 800-gallon aircraft with a low operating cost would be the best bet. But if the incident commander needs more than 800 gallons, or more than one load, an air tanker that can carry many thousands of gallons of retardant could cost less to get the job done, and get it done more quickly. Remember what we keep saying… fast aggressive, initial attack can keep small fires from becoming megafires. The federal government’s policy of trying to suppress fires on the cheap has limitations.
As a comparison of air tanker rates, in 2011 the average costs for a P2V on an exclusive use contract were $9,700 for daily availability, plus $6,500 per flight hour. In 2012, the rates for a DC-10 on a Call When Needed Contract are $50,021 for daily availability, plus $21,253 per flight hour including fuel, or $7,445 without fuel. CWN rates have to be much higher than for an extended exclusive use contract, since there is no guarantee that the aircraft will be used at all, or for more than a few days each year.
The two next generation BAe-146 air tankers operated by Neptune were brought on not through the next generation RFP, but were added to the company’s existing legacy air tanker contract as “additional equipment”. The contract for Tanker 40, which first dropped on a fire in September of 2011, ends today, October 5, but was extended by a few days due to having missed some of its Mandatory Availability Days (MAP) when it was down for maintenance. Tanker 41 first came on contract September 1, 2012 and was scheduled to go off on November 9, but it will also be extended a few days because it missed some MAP days while undergoing maintenance.
The RFP for the next generation air tankers allows for between 7 and 35 additional air tankers to be brought on. At this time funding available to the USFS will only allow for 7. Mr. Olson, the contracting officer, told us that he expects there to be a 5 percent reduction in funding for the USFS, so it is unlikely that any more than 7 will receive next generation contracts in the next year.
Still pending are award announcements for the RFPs for “legacy” air tankers such as the P2V which can carry at least 1,800 gallons, and Call When Needed contracts for Very Large Air Tankers that have a capacity of at least 10,000 gallons. The existing contracts with Minden and Neptune for the legacy air tankers expire within the next few months. The new ones will begin on February 20, 2013 … IF this RFP goes much more smoothly than the one for the next generation air tankers.