MISSOULA, Mont. (AP) -- The U.S. Forest Service has reopened bids on a contract to operate the next generation of firefighting planes after two companies protested the initial award.
That means Missoula-based Neptune Aviation and three other air tanker operators must refile their proposals for jet-powered aircraft to replace Korean War-era P2V tankers.
The bulk of the $261 million, five-year contract to modernize the private fleet of air tankers that drop flame retardant slurry on forest fires was originally awarded to Missoula-based Neptune Aviation.
The Forest Service rejected bids from jumbo-jet companies and for water-scooper planes that don't use retardant.
Canada-based Coulson Aviation and 10 Tanker of Victorville, Calif., challenged the Forest Service's contracting process in August. The government had until early October to respond.
Neptune president Dan Snyder said the company received notice from the Forest Service contractor on Friday the contract was being reposted.
"We haven't digested what they want us to do different. There are 31 different points as amendments, but we don't know what they want us to change," he said.
Forest Service officials did not immediately return a call Tuesday morning.
Safety concerns reduced the available planes contracted by the Forest Service from 44 in 2002 to 10 this year. Two of the older P2-Vs tankers crashed in early June, one of the crashes killing two pilots.
Neptune wants to gradually replace the P2Vs with newer BAe-146 jets under the new contract. The company has put two of the jets in service this year on interim contracts.
The three other companies in the protested contract include Nevada-based Minden Aviation, which won permission to add two of the new jets in 2012 and 2013.
Aero Air LLC of Hillsboro, Ore., was approved to add two McDonnell-Douglas MD-87s and Aero-Flite Inc. of Kingman, Ariz., was to add an RJ85, which is a slightly larger version of the BAe-146.
The Missoulian, citing Forest Service figures, reported (http://bit.ly/Tolbuf ) that Neptune had the most expensive five-year bid. Snyder told the newspaper Neptune's jets would be maintained at airliner standards, the most expensive level.
The California company 10 Tanker has two DC-10 jets converted to drop retardant, while Coulston Aviation flies Canadian-built water-scooper planes and has proposed converting surplus military C-130 transport planes into retardant bombers.
Under the new guidelines, the Forest Service wanted planes that could deliver at least 3,000 gallons of retardant. P2Vs can haul just 1,500 gallons, while BAes carry 3,000.
The DC-10 can carry 11,600 gallons of retardant, but faced questions of affordability and maneuverability.