Defense

Congress Worries The Contractor Flying Diplomats Around The Globe Isn’t Safe

An aviation contractor for the U.S. military — tasked with flying diplomats around the world — is banned from using a key airfield in Afghanistan for repeated safety violations, The Daily Caller News Foundation has learned.

Several members of Congress requested Secretary of State Rex Tillerson review the safety record of AAR Airlift Group, a group that is slated to provide critical air support for diplomatic missions into Afghanistan and elsewhere around the world through a $10 billion contract. The Department of Defense accused AAR helicopter pilots of flying too low after taking off from the airfield and nearly clipping a soccer goal post in two incidents this summer.

Air traffic controllers banned AAR indefinitely from flying into an undisclosed but critical airfield for Afghanistan, inhibiting the company’s ability to fulfill its task orders, according to the Pentagon. Two Congressmen are concerned the safety violation may put diplomats, dignitaries and members of Congress who regularly make use of the helicopter services at risk.

“I am especially interested in your assurance that any WASS [Worldwide Aviation Support Services] contractor has a proven track record of safely performing flight operations in Afghanistan,” California Rep. Duncan Hunter, a Republican, wrote in a Sept. 14 letter to Tillerson obtained by TheDCNF.

The State Department’s largest contract, known as the WASS and formerly the Global Aviation Support Services contract, is worth as much as $10 billion, and transports Tillerson, State Department diplomats and other government officials on diplomatic missions across the globe.

Hunter asked Tillerson to respond to the “red flags” raised by the court filings, for a statement declaring that any company servicing the State Department contract is not under investigation for safety violations by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) or the National Transportation and Safety Board (NTSB).

“We must have confidence that any contractor selected can provide the safe and secure aviation transport this vital mission requires,” Hunter wrote.

South Carolina Rep. Joe Wilson, a Republican and chairman of the Readiness Subcommittee for Armed Services Committee, also expressed his concern over AAR Airlift’s contract in his own letter to Tillerson Sept. 12, requesting a review of the solicitation process that awarded the contract in the first place.

Wilson asked State to “provide in writing your review of the solicitation, to include a certification that the procurement has been conducted beyond the appearance of misconduct by the government and bidders and that the Department is has [sic] no concerns related to viable bidders being able to able to [sic] safely execute this critical mission.”

AAR was unaware that members of Congress had asked the State Department to review the company’s safety record when contacted by The DCNF. A spokeswoman said the company “has a strong safety record, and we stand behind it.”

Soon after the ban was imposed, AAR suggested that refusing to allow its pilots to access to the critical airfield in Afghanistan may be punishment for a contracting dispute.

AAR has an indefinite ban from flying into a critical airfield in Afghanistan, which has a tight takeoff and landing space, according to court documents filed by the U.S. government related to a lawsuit filed by AAR. The company filed the suit to protest the award of a Defense Department Aviation support contract to CHI Aviation and Columbia Helicopters.

When departing the helicopter section of the airfield, air traffic controllers direct pilots to come to a “high hover” before taking off, to avoid obstacles in the short airfield. The government said AAR helicopters servicing the airfield failed to follow instructions, and took off horizontally, according to an incident written up on May 31, 2017.

“Upon takeoff, AAR nearly hit the goal post at the end of the landing area,” the government said in its filing Sept. 7 before the U.S. Court of Federal Claims. A redacted version of the filing is publicly available.

AAR was suspended until July with a warning that “any further violations would lead to a permanent ban.” A helicopter flown by AAR was observed in August making a similar “running takeoff” from the airfield, and the Defense Department barred the company from accessing the airport.

AAR claims they were never notified of the violations in a response to the court. “There appears to have been no written report of any incident and AAR was never informed of any such incident,” AAR wrote in its court filing, suggesting further that the August ban may be “punitive action taken against AAR for filing its protest,” according to Inside Defense.

The ban was placed on Aug. 25, the government said in the court filing, and notes that AAR filed its bid protest on the same day. AAR had asked for an injunction, which would effectively force the government to rely on AAR for helicopter support after Sept. 30, when the contract was supposed to expire.

Continuing to rely on AAR “would increase the risk of harm to soldiers and the mission,” the government argued. “These are concerning statements,” Hunter wrote.

AAR is not barred from operating in any other locations around Afghanistan, but the barring from the central airfield makes it impossible for the company to fulfill its duties to the Defense Department and puts President Donald Trump’s strategy for Afghanistan at risk, the government argued.

The ban comes after a series of Federal Aviation Administration penalties slapped on AAR for safety violations in the U.S., some of which occurred prior to State’s award of the contract, according to the Corporate Research Project of Good Jobs First.

When $10 billion is on the line, companies sometimes go to extreme lengths to win, or retain, a government contract. Dyncorp International held the contracts preceding WASS for more than 20 years, but lost the award in September 2016 after the State Department held an open competition.

Dyncorp alleges misconduct in the contracting process and claims the rival AAR stole billing information from a subcontractor.

Dyncorp is still fulfilling the State Department’s aviation services under a modification to the contract, which was scheduled to expire in April. The contract may be modified until the two companies resolve the lawsuit in federal claims court.

The Government Accountability Office dismissed Dyncorp’s initial protest of the contract award after State Department Office of the Inspector General found that while some AAR employees did work to obtain prices from the subcontractor illegally, there was no evidence that AAR used that information to secure the contract.

Dyncorp’s flying for the State Department under a modification to the contract was scheduled to expire in April. Dyncorp’s work on the contract may extend further until the two companies resolve the lawsuit in federal claims court.

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