Travis County rejects appeal of its $34 million helicopter purchase

Travis County commissioners voted unanimously Tuesday to stand by the $34 million bid from AgustaWestland Philadelphia Corp. to replace the county’s STAR Flight fleet, rejecting the losing bidder’s appeal.

The county approved the purchase of three helicopters last fall for emergency medical transportation, search-and-rescue operations and fire suppression. The deal may include the 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 company argued that it was the better choice in part because its 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 the old helicopters.

Airbus’ H145 aircraft were more expensive, but its trade-in offer was higher.

The county rejected the protest at the end of October, with purchasing agent Bonnie Floyd saying she was confident in the selection process and decision. Airbus challenged that decision Nov. 8, leading to Tuesday’s hearing, the company’s final recourse option with the county.

The 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.

Ron Stevenson, key account manager at Airbus, argued Tuesday that the county could not have accurately judged its competitor because some of AgustaWestland’s AW169 aircraft functions, such as the interior setup for Emergency Medical Services use and the filtration system to keep particles out of the engine, lacked data certified by the Federal Aviation Administration.

“Right now, the selection is based on a lot of assumptions, and it may or may not deliver what you think it will,” Stevenson said.

Floyd reiterated her arguments from the county’s rejection of the protest last year, noting that cost was only one factor. She also said the AgustaWestland aircraft’s larger cabin and faster speed better accommodated STAR Flight’s needs.

Floyd said that because the AgustaWestland helicopters were certified by the European Aviation Safety Agency, the county believes the FAA will be able to streamline its certification, based on previous statements about cooperation from the agencies.

Floyd noted that both companies proposed including equipment that is not yet certified, which was not a requirement in the request for proposal, and said it is a common occurrence with such purchases.

“The same thing happened … in 2005, when we bought the current aircraft,” she said. “Before putting (the new helicopters) into service, all equipment in the helicopter will be certified.”

County Judge Sarah Eckhardt said she did not see any problem with the process and that AgustaWestland offered the better package for STAR Flight’s needs.

“We laid out criteria in advance that put the overall performance of our program and its public safety capacity as the highest metric,” Eckhardt said. “At the end of the day, we stand by that evaluation.”

Commissioner Gerald Daugherty, who is on the county’s emergency services subcommittee, said he thought the process was fair and robust.

“It wasn’t predicated just on price,” Daugherty said. “Knowing what all we’re going to want out of this aircraft, it sounds to me like it was clearly a better aircraft.”

John Byus, key account manager with Airbus, said after the meeting that while company officials still disagree with the county’s assessment, they respect the decision.

“We wish them the best of luck,” Byus said.

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