EADS's leadership has still not decided whether to accept the air force's selection or file a protest with the US Government Accountability Office (GAO). After receiving a debriefing by the air force's selection team four days after contract award, the company has issued a cryptic message that yielded few clues about its intentions.

EADS "is evaluating the information presented to us", a company statement reads. "Our objective has always been that the US warfighter receive the most capable tanker, following a fair and transparent competition. That remains our position today."

The US government's acquisition rules require EADS to make a decision soon, but making a precise deadline prediction is difficult.

Ralph White, managing associate general council at the GAO, says a protest must be filed within 10 days of when a company knew or should have known of a problem. The debriefing - given on 28 February - is usually when the 10-day clock starts, giving EADS until 10 March to decide whether to lodge a complaint.

If a protest is filed, the GAO has no more than 100 days to render a final decision, with the goal to minimise the delay to the programme, White says. Within that period, the GAO would receive a response from the air force and a rebuttal from EADS. In addition, the GAO can call hearings, which would be normal in a case as large as KC-X, White says.

Whether EADS believes there are grounds to protest is now the critical question. Some analysts viewed the USAF's decision in favour of Boeing as inevitable, even if they preferred the KC-45.

Sandy Morris, aerospace and defence analyst at RBS, notes the USAF's request for proposals biased the decision heavily in favour of the aircraft with the lowest cost.

"This whole contest is like one of us walking into a Volkswagen garage wanting to buy a Golf and them trying to sell you a Passat. You might like one, but you don't have the money for one," Morris says. "I really feel for EADS - you ask a layman which is the better aircraft and they'd say the A330, but that's not the point: if you want a Golf, you want a Golf."

That interpretation, however, seemed at odds with the conventional wisdom in Washington DC in the weeks leading up to the contract award.

Even Boeing's most ardent supporters expressed concerns that an EADS victory was inevitable. The concerns began growing soon after Loren Thompson, chief operating officer of the Lexington Institute, which has been funded by Boeing to perform studies on KC-X related trade issues, issued a public warning in December, which was shortly after the air force's shipping error allowed both companies to view preliminary scores for one part of the evaluation.

According to Thompson, top Boeing officials were concerned at that time that EADS could win the contract by submitting a lower bid. Thompson's warning was followed up by unsuccessful calls from Boeing's supporters in Congress to force the Pentagon to factor the impact of alleged subsidies of Airbus aircraft into the cost evaluation for KC-X.

Even Ralph Crosby, chairman of EADS North America, provided an unusually detailed rationale for how the KC-45's price could defeat Boeing's bid only a week before the air force's decision.

Immediately after the contract award, however, Crosby called the air force's decision "certainly a disappointing turn of events" in a statement issued by EADS. Crosby promised a thorough and lengthy review of the air force's evaluation before the company would decide how to move forward.

Source: Flight International