Fight brewing over Travis County’s $34 million STAR Flight contract


Losing bidder Airbus Helicopters Inc. is appealing the county’s decision.

Airbus argues that, factoring in trade-in costs, its bid was cheaper than winner AgustaWestland’s.

But Travis County says AgustaWestland’s helicopters scored higher on its rating criteria.

The helicopter company that lost out on a $34 million bid to replace Travis County’s STAR Flight fleet is protesting the decision, arguing the winning bid was more expensive and included aircraft functions that have not been federally certified.

Travis County has stood by its choice of AgustaWestland Philadelphia Corp. for the three helicopters to be used for emergency medical transportation, search-and-rescue operations and fire suppression. The deal may include Travis County getting trade-in credit for three of its helicopters; a fourth will be sold using a broker.

Airbus Helicopters Inc., which lost the bid, initially filed its protest Oct. 19. The county rejected it Oct. 30.

Airbus challenged that decision Nov. 8 and will have a chance to make a last-ditch appeal to the Commissioners Court during a hearing, which will likely be scheduled in January, county officials said.

County Judge Sarah Eckhardt said she doesn’t believe that the appeal will cause any significant delays in the county receiving the helicopters.

RELATED: 5 things to know about Travis County’s newest STAR Flight helicopters

Airbus argues that it was the better choice in part because its offering price was lower than AgustaWestland’s — $21,681,433 compared with $23,547,831 — after accounting for the trade-in values each company offered for Travis County’s old helicopters. (Airbus’ H145 aircraft were more expensive, but its trade-in offer was higher.)

The company writes that its spare parts and tools cost is lower because the county already has much of what it needs from its current fleet of EC145 helicopters that also came from Airbus. Its operating and maintenance costs are also lower, Airbus wrote.

Airbus also argues that the county should have taken into account that certain functions of AgustaWestland’s AW169 aircraft, such as the interior setup for EMS use and the filtration system to keep particles out of the engine, are not certified by the Federal Aviation Administration.

Airbus contends that without government-validated data, the county could not have accurately judged performance measures, causing “significant risks.”

Travis County would be the first in the U.S. to use the AW169s for patient transport, search and rescue, law enforcement and firefighting missions, according to a press release from the manufacturer.

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Purchasing agent Bonnie Floyd said the county was confident in its selection process and decision.

The county’s rating criteria consisted of five categories related to aviation features, cabin features, initial cost, contract terms and completeness of proposal relative to requirements and operating and maintenance cost.

AgustaWestland received a total score of 406 out of 500, while Airbus received a 357. AgustaWestland mainly set itself apart in the cabin category, in which it scored 126 and Airbus scored 86. Qualities considered included interior layout and patient accessibility.

“Cost is only one factor” in a request for proposals, Floyd said in an interview. Floyd also wrote in her response to the Airbus protest that the AgustaWestland helicopters were certified by the European Aviation Safety Agency.

“With the acknowledgement by the FAA that certification by the EASA is reliable evidence of airworthiness, the risks may be negligible,” Floyd wrote.

Airbus spokesman Bob Cox argued that FAA standards can often be more stringent.

“A $34 million investment in a product expected to last for 10 to 15 years should be based on clear, objective data,” Cox said. “The aircraft’s performance, mission capability and cost cannot be accurately determined without verified data.”

Bid protests are very rare, Floyd said, noting that in her 15 years with the county, she has seen only one other protest. That protest was unsuccessful, she said.

STAR Flight Director Casey Ping declined to answer specific questions about the two bids while the appeal is pending, but he issued a statement standing by the county’s selection of AgustaWestland.

“Travis County determined that AgustaWestland gives the County the most value for its dollars by allowing STAR Flight to better execute current mission services such as fire suppression, medical evacuations, and local patient transports while simultaneously expanding STAR Flight’s mission services to include non-stop, long distance patient transports,” Ping said.

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