The General Accounting Office has upheld a challenge that the U.S. Forest Service wrongly awarded a contract to Neptune Aviation of Missoula, for use of their next-generation air tankers for firefighting this summer.

Neptune CEO Ron Hooper said on Friday, April 4, that Neptune could be forced to have several next-generation aircraft out of service this summer.

According to the Associated Press, competing air tanker companies objected to a sole-source contract the Forest Service awarded to Neptune Aviation. The contract could be worth $496 million over the next nine years.

"Right now, we have seven aircraft under what is called a legacy contract, including one of our next generation aircraft, and two of our aircraft are being contested," Hooper said. "Currently, we have one other aircraft that does not have a contract. Potentially, we'll have those three plus a fifth one that we'll have ready by the first of August. Those aircraft could potentially be sitting on the ramp idle, depending upon what the Forest Service does in response to this GAO determination."

Hooper gives a best and worst-case scenario for Neptune, depending upon the decision of Forest Service officials.

"If it goes in our favor and we get these contracts, we'll continue to develop next-generation aircraft  which will mean gainful employment here in Missoula," Hooper said. "We have 150 employees working here at Neptune. If it goes against us, we'll potentially have four aircraft sitting on the ramp without work, and we'll have to determine what that means for our company going forward. Last year we grossed about $37 million , so there's that potential loss of tax base, plus, as one of Missoula's larger employers for the past 22 years, we would have to make some difficult decisions. But, our future is in Missoula, we have no intention of going anywhere else."

Hooper said no timeline for a decision was officially set by the Forest Service.

"Looking at their alternatives, I would suspect a decision within a week to 10 days, but that's just my speculation," Hooper said. "The Forest Service hasn't indicated to me how long that decision might take."

Meanwhile, the next fire season is only a few months away.

Ron Hooper, CEO of Neptune Aviation