Northwest Airlines sees it as a way to make some extra money. Its flight attendants union, however, says it could be compromising safety.
The airline's recently introduced program that offers the more spacious exit-row seats to passengers willing to fork over an extra $15 is "ill-conceived," the Professional Flight Attendants Association argues in a letter sent to Northwest Chief Executive Doug Steenland.
Under a plan the Eagan-based airline calls "Coach Choice," passengers can get an exit-row seat or a more comfortable aisle seat by paying a $15 fee. The plan is in response to customer complaints that they can't get good coach seats when they buy tickets on short notice.
But the flight attendants are challenging the program, saying it degrades federal safety rules that govern who can sit in exit-row seats.
Exit-row seats come with a hitch: Passengers who sit there get extra legroom but must be willing — and able — to perform certain tasks in an evacuation of the aircraft, including opening an emergency door. They also must be at least 15 years old.
The union's letter to Steenland argues that the airline, by offering the seats for additional money, is "selling safety."
"It takes away from the safety aspect of why we have designated people in exit rows that are willing and able to assist the crew in a time of emergency," said Jeanne Elliott, the union's regulatory affairs coordinator. The fee "can be misconstrued to allow bad behavior, or used to solicit preferential treatment …"
Northwest said it requires passengers to meet the federal safety requirements for exit-row seating regardless of whether they paid a premium to sit there.
If a passenger who paid the additional $15 is found to lack the qualifications to assist in an evacuation, he or she eligible for a refund, it said. Northwest insists the process used to inform customers of requirements is the same it used before it launched Coach Choice.
About 5 percent of Northwest's domestic coach seat assignments are part of the Coach Choice program; 60 percent of those are in exit rows.
Aviation consultant Michael Boyd said he doesn't buy the union's safety-risk argument.
"Does that mean people who pay an extra 15 bucks can't be counted on to get out of an airplane?" asked Boyd, who is president of the Boyd Group in Evergreen, Colo.
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