Senate to probe mix-up of tanker data

The Senate Armed Services Committee intends to look into a mix-up of proprietary data by the U.S. Air Force in a competition to replace an aging fleet of aerial refueling tankers.

Senate Armed Services Committee chairman Carl Levin said he will hold one or more hearings by Feb. 1 to investigate "whether laws and fair competition regulations have been appropriately followed."

Boeing and Airbus parent European Aeronautic Defence and Space Co. are bidding on the initial $35 billion contract that calls for 179 tankers.

U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., pushed for the hearings to find out more about a mistake in which computer disks containing sensitive bidding information went to the wrong bidder.

Boeing received the Airbus disk, while Airbus received the disk that was to have gone to Boeing.

Boeing said its employees did not open the disk or read it.

The agreement to look into the issue was part of the negotiations on the National Defense Authorization Act, which passed Wednesday.

"We deserve answers on what impact it has had on this competition and American jobs," Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., said in a statement.

Boeing welcomed the investigation, saying in a statement that it was prepared to answer questions from the committee.

"We remain concerned about the implications of the release of our proprietary information, and we feel some unresolved issues remain," Boeing said. "Until we're satisfied we have a complete picture, we're keeping our options open for how we go forward."

In the meantime, Boeing is working hard on its final bid, it said.

"Given a level playing field, we absolutely believe we can win, which is why we have consistently raised concerns about the ability of a heavily subsidized Airbus/EADS to accept levels of financial risk — and provide pricing — that a commercial company can," it said.

The data mix-up was the latest in a decade-long attempt by the Air Force to replace its 50-year-old tankers.

It's the third try to replace the tankers. The mix-up could lead to a fourth round, some say, because it would open the door for the losing bidder to protest an award.