Negotiators reach tentative deal to have Air Force lease Boeing jets

Tuesday, December 18th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

WASHINGTON (AP) _ House and Senate negotiators reached a tentative agreement Tuesday on a $22 billion plan for the Air Force to lease 100 Boeing 767s that will be converted into midair refueling planes.

The deal calls for the planes to be leased for 10 years. Boeing would then take them back or sell them to the government, said Todd Webster, spokesman for Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash.

Critics say the Air Force would be better served if it purchased new refueling tankers and that the money looks like corporate welfare for Boeing. The company has lost business since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and has announced plans to trim up to 30,000 jobs.

A conference committee of House and Senate members would have to sign off on the deal, which is part of a $318 billion defense spending bill. Both chambers of Congress and President Bush then would have to approve the measure.

Jen Burita, spokeswoman for Rep. Jennifer Dunn, R-Wash., said Boeing could provide six tankers next year, followed by an additional 14 in 2003 and 20 more each year until the fleet reaches 100 in 2007.

``The interest we have is in Boeing workers,'' Burita said. And ``this is a resourceful way for the Air Force to obtain an asset that they need anyway.''

The aircraft would replace a fleet of 136 KC-135 refueling tankers. They have been used extensively in military actions in Kosovo and Afghanistan, but are getting old and need frequent repairs.

Built from the Boeing 707 commercial jet, the first KC-135s entered service in 1957 and the last in 1965.

In a statement, the Air Force said the war on terrorism is ``stretching this aging fleet.'' It estimated that it would $3 billion to support the older aircraft and said the leasing program would increase the availability and reliability of the tankers _ without that expense.

Opponents, including Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., say the plan is more expensive than buying new tankers. And once the leases expire, the Air Force would have nothing to show for its investment.

McCain and Sen. Phil Gramm, R-Texas, want Bush to veto the bill unless it contains language allowing him to redirect the funds for other uses if he decides national security or lives are at stake.

The House had approved only $150 million to buy one 767 to convert into a tanker, plus $190 million more to test it as an intelligence-gathering aircraft. The Senate version, pushed by Murray and others, called for leasing 100 planes.

The work to convert the 767s into tankers is expected to be contracted out.

Washington state lawmakers have been lobbying hard for the Senate version to help alleviate the state's unemployment, which is among the highest in the country. The majority of Boeing's layoffs are expected in the Seattle area, the hub of Boeing's commercial aviation division.

Boeing has said the leasing program would add about 7,900 jobs directly and indirectly in the region.

Earlier this fall, the Pentagon chose Lockheed Martin Corp. over Boeing to build its next-generation fighter jet, a contract that will be worth at least $200 billion, the largest in Defense Department history.