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Originally published Thursday, February 10, 2011 at 1:37 PM

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Boeing, EADS submit final bids for Air Force tanker contract

The two contenders for the Air Force aerial-refueling tanker contract, Boeing and Airbus parent EADS, submitted their final bids Thursday...

Seattle Times aerospace reporter

The two contenders for the Air Force aerial-refueling tanker contract, Boeing and Airbus parent EADS, submitted their final bids Thursday.

Boeing has proposed a military version of its 767 airliner, to be built on its Everett assembly line alongside commercial jets.

EADS is offering an Airbus A330 tanker, to be assembled at a new wide-body jet facility in Mobile, Ala., along with commercial A330 freighter jets.

Since both contending airplanes meet all the mandatory-performance requirements, the terms of the competition mandate that the lowest price should be decisive.

Boeing CEO Jim McNerney on Thursday said Boeing's final bid price is "aggressive but responsible."

Speaking to analysts at a conference in New York, The Associated Press reported, McNerney told his audience: "The people in this room would be glad if we won at the bid level that we've put in, and would be happy if we lost at a lower level."

However, price in the end may not be the deciding factor because the contest has become heavily politicized.

Boeing supporters in Congress have characterized the lengthy contest as a fight between U.S. and European interests. Boeing claims that over 40 years, a 767 win would support 50,000 jobs around the U.S., with about 11,000 of those in Washington state.

Airbus claims that an A330 tanker win would support 48,000 American jobs. Neither side provides details to support their figures.

Boeing executives and their Congressional supporters have so far failed to persuade the Pentagon to take into account illegal subsidies EADS received in development of the A330.

There are signs the contest may drag on beyond the Air Force decision, which is expected next month. Boeing appears ready to consider another formal protest if EADS wins.

In 2008, Boeing successfully protested a previous award of the contract to EADS on procedural grounds. This time, the basis of another protest could lie in a mistake by the Air Force procurement office last November.

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In that incident, data on the Boeing plane was inadvertently sent to Airbus. The Air Force tried to fix the error by giving both sides access to the corresponding data on its rival, but Boeing has continued to query what happened.

Boeing CEO McNerney put forward Boeing's view of what's at stake in a statement Thursday:

"This decision is critical to America's national security and its manufacturing base," McNerney said.

In contrast, EADS North America Chairman Ralph Crosby chose not to look through that political lens, instead insisting that Airbus' jet is better for the Air Force mission.

"We're proud to compete on the merits of our tanker offering and support the warfighter's right to choose the aircraft they will go to war in," said Crosby.

The contract is worth $35 billion directly, to replace the current fleet of Boeing-built KC-135 tankers with 179 new tankers. A further $5 billion or more in operational support is also at stake.

Dominic Gates: 206-464-2963 or dgates@seattletimes.com

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