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The tanker goes to Boeing, comes to Washington

Post by Patrick O'Callahan on Feb. 24, 2011 at 7:43 pm |
February 24, 2011 5:46 pm

This editorial will appear in tomorrow’s print edition.

Washington needs all the morale boosts it can get right now. It got a big one Thursday when Boeing won the $35 billion contract to build the Air Force’s new aerial refueling tankers.

Hooray for the home team, or something like that. The Boeing Co. is now headquartered in Chicago, but most of the expected 11,000 tanker-dependent jobs will be created in Western Washington; perhaps 1,000 of those jobs will go to Kansas.

The planned gas-station-in-the-sky will be a modified version of the 767, an old model Boeing had planned to phase out soon in favor of the 787 Dreamliner. Thursday’s decision means that workers in Washington will keep assembling thoroughly modernized 767s in Everett along with the Dreamliner.

It also means that Boeing’s jet construction will remain well-anchored in this state. The contract calls for 179 jets; Boeing would turn them out at a rate of 14 a year, which translates into a very long production run. There may well be follow-up orders, perhaps from other countries. Some think the deal may ultimately be worth much, much more than $35 billion.

Boeing’s competition for this contract, the European Aeronautic Defense and Space Co., was offering an excellent alternative, a militarized version of its Airbus A330. Both aircraft satisfied 372 performance measures established by the Air Force; both were credible designs from highly successful manufacturers.

It turned out that Boeing’s price was lower – despite the European practice of heavily subsidizing the development of Airbus’ jets, including the A330.

The 767’s much lower fuel costs might have been decisive; it weighs 40 tons less than the A330 and reportedly burns a ton of fuel less per hour. Over the decades the new tanker fleet will be in the air, the fuel savings alone would add up to billions upon billions of dollars.

In 2008, when the Air Force flubbed the contract decision, it counted the 767’s leaner dimensions against it. The A330 got points for being able to carry more fuel, albeit at higher cost. It was baffling: Refueling decisions rarely require even the capacity of the 767, and no one had informed Boeing that extra size would bring extra credit.

We’d love to believe that this decision was as objective and transparent as that one was subjective and rigged.

EADS is now entitled to an extension debriefing on precisely why it lost. After that, it has another five days to decide whether to appeal. If there are major flaws in the Air Force’s analysis, you can bet that EADS – with $35 billion at stake – will spot them.

In which case, there could be yet further delay in getting these planes to the military – and again, it would be the Air Force’s own fault. Let’s hope Thursday’s announcement settles this contract once and for all.

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