UPDATE 2-Beechcraft to protest Embraer win of US Air Force deal

Fri Mar 8, 2013 6:58pm EST

March 8 (Reuters) - Beechcraft Corp said on Friday it will formally protest the U.S. Air Force's decision to award a $428 million contract for light attack planes for the Afghan military to Brazil's Embraer SA.

After a politically charged bidding process, Embraer and its U.S.-based partner, Sierra Nevada, won the deal on Feb. 27 to supply 20 light attack planes to be used in Afghanistan counterinsurgency missions..

Beechcraft, formerly known as Hawker Beechcraft, emerged from Chapter 11 bankruptcy last month. The aircraft maker said in a statement that the Air Force decision puts 1,400 jobs in jeopardy in Kansas, where it is based, and other states.

In a statement, Beechcraft Chief Executive Bill Boisture said his company was "very perplexed" by the Air Force decision and would file a protest with the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) based on concerns that there were mistakes in the selection process.

"We simply don't understand how the Air Force can justify spending over 40 percent more - over $125 million more - for what we consider to be less capable aircraft," Boisture said.

Beechcraft said it decided to launch a formal protest after a debriefing with the Air Force earlier this week.

Embraer and Sierra Nevada won an initial $355 million contract in December 2011, but that deal was scrapped after a challenge from Hawker Beechcraft, the losing bidder.

The competition has had political overtones. Brazilian officials expressed dismay last year when the original award to Embraer was withdrawn, and political fallout from Beechcraft losing out to the Brazilian company seeped into the U.S. presidential election campaign.

WINNERS RESPOND

In a statement on Friday, Embraer and Sierra Nevada said the Air Force weighed pricing, mission capability and past performance in deciding the latest contest.

"Given the strength of our proposal and the thoroughness of the U.S. Air Force's evaluation process, it is unfortunate that Beechcraft is now protesting the Light Air Support contract award once again," the companies said.

On Friday, the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers union, which represents more than 3,000 active and laid-off workers at Beechcraft, called on the Air Force to reverse the award to Embraer.

The union said the selection process was facing scrutiny because the Air Force chose a more costly plane amid the U.S. sequestration process that calls for big spending cuts, including in defense.

"We should be very concerned whenever U.S. taxpayer dollars are used to create hundreds of jobs in any foreign country," union President Tom Buffenbarger said in a statement. He called the Air Force decision a "real blow to American workers and taxpayers."

Embraer and Sierra Nevada said its offering in the competition, the single-engine turboprop Super Tucano, supports more than 1,400 U.S. jobs, and added the aircraft will be built in Jacksonville, Florida.

"An important aspect about our approach is the "in-sourcing" of jobs to Jacksonville," the companies' statement said. "We feel it establishes an exciting future model of bringing high tech aerospace manufacturing jobs back to the United States to stem the recent tide of moving jobs offshore."

Sierra Nevada has 2,500 U.S. workers and Embraer has 1,200 U.S. employees.