WASHINGTON - Boeing Co. said Air Force officials tilted the playing field in a $35 billion tanker contract competition toward Northrop Grumman Corp. and European Aeronautic Defence and Space Co.

In a formal protest of the contract made public on Tuesday, Boeing said the Air Force "repeatedly made fundamental but often unstated changes to the bid requirements and evaluation process" to keep the Northrop Grumman/EADS proposal alive.

The release of the executive summary of the protest is Boeing's latest public relations salvo in its attempt to overturn the Air Force award of the tanker deal to the Northrop/ EADS team. Doing so won't be easy - a fact Boeing acknowledged Tuesday.

Mark McGraw, manager of Boeing's tanker program, said reversing the Air Force's decision will be "an uphill battle," but he's confident the company will prevail.

Last week, the Chicago-based company filed its protest with the Government Accountability Office, which has 100 days from the date of the filing to rule. In the protest, Boeing maintains that the Air Force review "was not a fair and open competition, but a skewed process that unfairly compromised Boeing's proposal."

Boeing has also turned to several of its existing lobbying firms, including Denny Miller Associates and Gephardt Group, to press its case. And on Monday, Boeing said its tanker could have saved $30 billion in fuel bills over 40 years.

Northrop Grumman, too, has gone on the offensive. Paul Meyer, manager of Northrop's refueling tanker program, said Tuesday he doesn't understand Boeing's claims since both companies had adequate opportunity to comment on and help shape several versions of the Air Force's request for proposal. He added that his competitor's attacks on the Air Force acquisition process come as a surprise.

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