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Thursday, January 25, 2001 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Alaska settles suit over cabin air

Seattle Times staff reporter

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In a case that attracted national attention, Alaska Airlines has agreed to pay $725,000 to settle a lawsuit by 26 flight attendants who alleged they were sickened by toxic leaks that fouled the air of jet cabins.

The confidential settlement ends a long-running dispute between 26 flight attendants and the airline over the quality of cabin air in Alaska's MD-80 airplanes.

As part of the agreement reached late last year, the flight attendants, without disavowing their claims, signed a statement saying the airline had never intended to harm them and had taken measures to improve workplace safety.

The flight attendants will continue to pursue legal claims against MD-80 maker McDonnell-Douglas, now owned by Boeing, and AlliedSignal, the manufacturer of a part at the center of the controversy. AlliedSignal is now owned by Honeywell.

Randy Gordon, the attorney for the flight attendants, confirmed the settlement had been reached but would not confirm or deny the terms.

Kelly Corr, Alaska's attorney, also declined to discuss the settlement.

Details were provided this week by a source familiar with the suit. The flight attendants' statement and a letter by an Alaska official outlining part of the agreement were made public by the airline yesterday.

The flight attendants claimed the airline had failed to warn them about a serious workplace hazard, alleging that chemicals in the fluids used on Alaska jets causes neurological impairment.

While passengers made isolated complaints, no widespread problems were ever reported.

Alaska disputed the flight attendants' allegations and made no admissions as part of the settlement.

But the carrier agreed to continue efforts to ensure the proper lubrication oil is used.

The deal calls for each flight attendant to receive $4,068. An additional $6,000 will be divided among them to cover medical expenses. Some still work for the airline and others have left.

Of the remaining money, about $292,000 will go for legal fees and expenses, to be divided among attorneys and the flight attendants' union, and the remainder will be used to fund the continuing suit against the other defendants.

As part of the settlement, Alaska agreed not to try to recover any worker's compensation already paid to flight attendants. The lawsuit, filed in King County Superior Court in 1998, grew out of complaints from more than 900 flight attendants that they had suffered unexplained sickness aboard Alaska flights during the past 10 years. The symptoms included headaches, tremors and impaired mental abilities.

Some Alaska mechanics, many of whom dated or were married to flight attendants, suspected that hydraulic fluid and lubrication oil were leaking from a part called the auxiliary power unit, or APU, and being pumped into the cabin air through ventilation systems.

Designed and manufactured by AlliedSignal, the APU is a small turbine tucked into the tail cone.

Pilots activate the APU on the ground to supply electrical power and pump air into the cabin. During flight, the APU typically is switched off and the jet engines supply power and cabin air.

Alaska has said that hydraulic leaks occur and cause temporary illness. But the airline has said it has taken extensive and expensive steps to reduce leaks, including improving drains, installing dams to keep fluid from reaching the power unit, and using stronger clamps and thicker cable to prevent leaks near the unit.

The flight attendants faced a steep legal hurdle in their claims against Alaska. Under state law, employers are required to pay worker's compensation for workplace injuries only when it can be shown they deliberately intended to harm employees.

In the case against McDonnell Douglas/Boeing and AlliedSignal, the flight attendants must show only that the products were defective under a strict liability standard, without needing to prove negligence. Both companies deny the suit's claims, which could take months to resolve.

In their statement, the flight attendants said they reviewed voluminous documentation produced by Alaska and other parties, as well as other evidence.

"Based upon this information, we now know that Alaska Airlines has long been involved in serious and constructive efforts to address cabin contamination issues and has expended many thousands of `man hours' of time to address the concerns raised by flight attendants," the statement says.

Alaska carefully examined complaints by flight attendants and took steps to improve workplace safety, the statement says. "It is equally clear that Alaska Airlines certainly has never had any malicious desire to injure its workers."

In a Nov. 27 letter to employees, Alaska's vice president of customer service, Ed White, said the flight attendants' statement shows they concluded there was "no solid legal ground" for continuing their case against Alaska.

White outlined various steps the airline has taken to address the flight attendants' concerns, including a decision to change to a new generation of engine oil.

"We are delighted that the lawsuit against the company has been resolved," White wrote.

Steve Miletich's phone number is 206-464-3302. His e-mail address is: smiletich@seattletimes.com.

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