MISSOULA, Mont. — The U.S. Forest Service recently announced the new conditions of contracts for companies that prove firefighting air tankers. The next generation 3.0 air tanker contracts will be just one year as opposed to the five-year contracts next generations 1.0 and 2.0 had.
Over time they need to phase out older air tankers. Previous generations of planes included World War II and Korean war planes. Those planes have been phased out, and the planes currently used are mostly BAe-147 aircraft.
Generation 3.0 won’t have any new plane requirements, but they’ve only requested five new planes to be commissioned. There are seven companies in the nation that provide air tankers, so the competition is high.
One of those seven companies is based in Missoula. Neptune Aviation has had contracts with the Forest Service for decades, so when CEO Ron Hooper heard the new conditions he felt a little uneasy.
“The disappointment was it's only a one-year contract. It has four one-year options, but for us the uncertainty of that kind of business model creates a challenge for us and a bit of anxiety,” said Hooper.
He was also surprised that the Forest Service only wants five additional planes. He was expecting more.
“I had anticipated 11 contracts being awarded as a result of next generation 3.0. In fact, there’s only going to be five opportunities there,” said Hooper.
Hooper says it will increase the competition to win those contracts. And with only one-year contracts, some companies may go out of business.
Companies may not be able afford to maintain planes, given the limited length of the contracts.
“Your flight and maintenance crews are stable because they know they've got at least five years of work. In fact, 1.0 and 2.0 were both firmly five one-year options,” said Hooper.
Crews might not stick around if they know the contracts are only a year, with no guarantee the contract will be renewed.
Hooper expressed safety concerns. Especially since fire seasons are getting longer.
“The last two years are becoming the norm. You start fighting fires in February-March, and you go to November-December,” said Hooper.
He said he hopes he and his colleagues will be able to talk decision-makers into rethinking the new model.
We’ve reached out to the U.S. Forest Service for comment and are waiting to hear back.