GAO ruling gives Boeing fair chance

In childhood, it’s simply called a do-over. And on Wednesday, the GAO correctly said Boeing deserves one.

Congressional investigators upheld Boeing’s protest of the Air Force’s decision to award a $35 billion refueling tanker contract to Europe’s Airbus, saying that they found “a number of significant errors that could have affected the outcome of what was a close competition between Boeing and Northrup Grumman.”

The rare recommendation by the GAO to sustain Boeing’s protest is absolutely the right call. (The GAO sustains only one in four protests). The Air Force isn’t required to follow the GAO’s advice, but if it doesn’t, it sure has some explaining to do — to Congress. The Air Force has 60 days to respond to the recommendation.

Sen. Patty Murray’s relentless investigation and questioning of the contract award likely made GAO’s work easier. In explaining the decision, the agency said the Air Force made seven major mistakes in its procurement process, including:

n ­­ Failure to assess the merits of the bids in accordance with its own evaluation criteria.

n Holding “misleading and unequal discussions” with Boeing about fulfililng requirements.

n The evaluation of military construction costs and the bidders’ aircraft costs was unreasonable.

n Giving Northrop-EADS extra credit for exceeding certain performance parameters, when this was pointedly not allowed.

Oops. That’s definitely enough errors to require a rebidding of the contract. But fasten your seatbelts. This turbulent ride is a long way from landing. The GAO’s recommendation doesn’t mean things will be any easier for Boeing the second time around, but it would ensure a level playing field in the selection process.

The procurement process was supremely indicted on June 12, when both companies confirmed that the Air Force miscalculated operating costs of the competing aircraft. After the fixes, Boeing turned out to have a $91.8 million cost advantage, according to an Air Force document obtained by Bloomberg.com.

Oops again.

The GAO concluded that the Air Force should reopen discussions with the bidders and request the competitors resubmit proposals.

“We are vindicated and we’re back in the game,” Murray said. Exactly.

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