Is Airbus’ Bird Too Big?

The Air Force’s size obsession has already cost Boeing billions. Will taxpayers have to shoulder an equally large burden?

Last week, Boeing lodged a formal protest with the federal Government Accountability Office, asking it to review the decision by the U.S. Air Force to select a fleet of Airbus A330 aerial refueling tankers over Boeing's KC-767 model, a $35 billion contract that could swell to thrice that size over time. In a statement issued in conjunction with the filing of the protest, Boeing accused the Air Force of relaxing its size restrictions on the fly, eventually gravitating toward a tanker the company felt exceeded the specifications originally spelled out in the procurement process. "It is clear that the original mission for these tankers— that is, a medium-sized tanker where cargo and passenger transport was a secondary consideration—became lost in the process, and the Air Force ended up with an oversized tanker," said Mark McGraw, vice president of Boeing's tanker programs."Oversized" is the operative word here; the A330 is heavier, longer, taller, and wider than either Boeing's KC-767 or the KC-135, which the Air Force currently uses for refueling operations. Per the Federal Aviation Administration's Advisory Circular, the 330 falls into the FAA's Group 5 size classification, whereas the 767 is a Group 4 bird."Our impression is that the A330 will be the second-biggest airplane in the Air Force's inventory, so that would lead you to believe that, obviously, there are going to be some places where they'll have to build new facilities or modify facilities," says Boeing spokesperson Bill Barksdale, a St. Louis–based Air Force vet who once served locally at McChord. "It's really gonna force the Air Force to pay a bill when it comes to where they park [the 330s], what the ramp strengths are."Here, Barksdale hints at the complexity of airstrip engineering, namely that a runway isn't a runway isn't a runway. "While it may just look like they're parking planes out on a ramp, there's a lot of infrastructure that goes into that ramp," says Bill Dolan, deputy airport director for Snohomish County. "There are a lot of connecting points that need to be in position for this model or that model."And that's just the tip of the iceberg. While Group 4 and 5 airplanes "both get by with the same runway," says Dolan, "the requirements for separation between runway and parallel taxiway are a little interesting." So interesting, in fact, that depending on the airstrip, taxiway shoulders would have to be increased from 25 to 35 feet to accommodate the 330, and might require paving of what was previously a turf shoulder. Furthermore, adds Dolan, the "object-free area" adjacent to the taxiway would increase from 259 to 320 feet, which could require the movement of entire buildings in extreme scenarios.The most concrete alteration that will likely have to occur to accommodate the A330 is expansion of hangar size, which could cost up to $200 million per site, according to industry and government sources, who add that the per-site tab could eclipse $1 billion if more comprehensive modifications such as those outlined by Dolan are required.Interestingly, how much money would be required to equip airstrips to handle the A330 wasn't something that had to be taken into account in the Air Force's selection process, so the total tab to taxpayers is elusive at this point. But, says Dolan, "Suffice it to say, there are a number of things that would need to be bigger to accommodate a Group 5 airplane versus a Group 4, and there are obviously costs associated with them." (Dolan declined to address specific price estimates, as did Barksdale.)"There will need to be some infrastructure changes," acknowledges Lt. Col. Jennifer Cassidy, a Pentagon-based Air Force spokesperson who also declined to delve into cost detail. "But I haven't heard anybody specifically say we need to make X changes at X bases. The bases [where the A330 will land] haven't been established yet."

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