The US Air Force is to brief Boeing on Friday, 7 March, on why it lost the KC-X tanker contest, after surviving a Congressional hearing on the competition.

The meeting was originally scheduled for 12 March, but Boeing requested an immediate debrief following award of the $35 billion contract for 179 aircraft to Northrop Grumman and EADS on 29 February.

Boeing will have 10 days after the briefing in which to decide whether to file a protest against the contract award. The company has not previously disputed a Pentagon contract, and is more normally the target of such protests.

Testifying before Congress, senior US Air Force officials defended the decision and the process by which it was reached. And despite heated rhetoric from some politicians following the announcement Northrop/EADS had won, lawmakers appear willing to wait until Boeing has been debriefed before deciding whether to act.

Speaking at a conference in New York, Boeing 's defence chief Jim Albaugh said the company was suprised by the selection of the larger Airbus A330-based tanker over its KC-767 because the original request for proposals indicated the US Air Force wanted a medium-sized tanker.

"In our reading of the RFP this was never about being the biggest," he said. "This was never about who could haul more fuel. This was never about who coudl haul the most cargo or personnel." Albaugh says Boieng could have offered a large 777-based tanked, but was "discouraged [by the Air Force] from doing so".

Boeing believes its KC-767 bid was lower cost and lower risk. "We need to understand why our conculsion is different than the Air Force," Albaugh said.

Northrop and EADS, meanwhile, have responded to "inaccurate comments" following announcement of their win. No jobs would be transferred from the USA to Europe, or from Europe to the USA under the KC-45A tanker programme, both companies say.

Assembly and completion of the tankers in Mobile, Alabama, and production of the refuelling booms in Bridgeport, West Virginia, will result in the creation of some 2,000 new jobs in the USA, the companies say.