Boeing tanker deal may be expedited

By Michelle Dunlop Herald Writer

EVERETT — The Boeing Co. could be awarded a $35 billion Air Force tanker contract sooner than expected, a Pentagon official said Tuesday.

Just a day after Boeing rival Northrop Grumman and its partner EADS dropped out of the contest, Defense Department officials are reviewing whether they should speed up the process, Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman told Reuters. The Air Force had asked Boeing and Northrop to submit bids by mid-May with the plan of announcing a winner in September.

But Northrop’s withdrawal opens up the opportunity for the Pentagon to award Boeing the contract for replacing 179 of its aging KC-135 tankers sooner than planned. Boeing will supply the Air Force tankers based on its Everett-built 767 commercial jet.

Not everyone is upbeat about the Air Force’s competition. In exiting the Air Force tanker contest, Northrop and EADS said the Air Force’s contest favored Boeing. The duo planned to offer the Air Force a tanker derived from Airbus’ A330 jet. EADS is Airbus’ parent company.

EADS president Louis Gallois suggested the Air Force ultimately loses out in getting Boeing’s KC-767 tanker: “We deeply regret that the U.S. Air Force will not get the best available airplane.”

On Tuesday, European Union officials expressed concern that the competition was slanted to discourage EADS from participating.

“Open procurement markets guarantee better competition and better value for money for the taxpayer,” said Karel De Gucht, EU trade commissioner, in a statement.

Despite Northrop’s decision not to bid, Boeing’s Jim Albaugh isn’t convinced the tanker drama is over. Before being named to lead Boeing’s commercial airplanes division last year, Albaugh presided over Boeing’s defense business, including the company’s previous attempts over nearly a decade to win the tanker contract.

“It’s the longest running soap opera since ‘Days of Our Lives,’ ” he said on Tuesday. “And I’m not sure we’ve seen the last episode yet.”