Air Transportation: Boeing Bites The Big One

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March 3, 2008: After over a decade of searching, the U.S. Air Force has finally decided on its next aerial tanker. The winner was European firm Airbus, which offered the KC-30, based on the Airbus 330-300, which normally sells for $160 million each. The KC-30 carries 20 percent more fuel than the other candidate, the KC-767, plus more cargo pallets (26 versus 19) and passengers. These were apparently decisive factors in the final decision.

The KC-767 is based on the Boeing 767-200 airliner, which sells for about $120 million. The 767 has been in service since 1982, and over 800 have been manufactured so far. Boeing developed the KC-767, at a cost of nearly a billion dollars, on its own. Boeing also developed the original KC-135 tanker in the 1950s, and has since built over 2,000 of these. But the KC-767 sales effort was marred by the earlier use of bribes and other misbehavior. Meanwhile, the first KC-767s are being delivered to Italy and Japan, and is being offered to other nations as well.

The two engine KC-30 will officially be known as the KC-45A, and will replace the four engine KC-135. The older aircraft carries 90 tons of fuel and can transfer up to 68 tons. Typically, aerial tankers have to service B-52s, which carry over 140 tons of jet fuel, and fighters like the F-15 (over five tons). A two engine KC-767 carries about as much fuel as the KC-135, while the KC-30 carried more. The KC-135 has long made itself useful carrying cargo and passengers, as well as fuel, and both the KC-767 and KC-30 have more capacity for this, with the KC-30 having a decisive edge.

The KC-767 was developed partly because it is about the same size as the KC-135 (wingspan is 156 feet, ten more than the KC-135). Thus the 767 could use the same basing and repair facilities as the 135. That was not a critical factor. Moreover, Airbus has been developing the KC-30 for several years, and the first one will enter service with Australia this year.

The contract to build 179 KC-45As is worth about $35 billion (about $196 million per aircraft). More than half the work will be done in Europe. The first KC-45s will enter service in five years, rolling out of an assembly plant in the United States. This will give Airbus production facilities in the United States.

 


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