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Friday, March 1, 2002 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Alaska Airlines attendants' trial begins over jet-cabin air

Seattle Times business reporter

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After years of waiting to get their day in court, 26 current and former Alaska Airlines flight attendants began outlining their case yesterday that they were seriously sickened by toxic leaks fouling the air of MD-80 jet cabins.

But the maker of a mechanism blamed for the leaks, AlliedSignal, and the plane maker, McDonnell Douglas, also got their chance, telling a King County Superior Court jury there was no basis for the claims.

In opening statements of the civil case, jurors listened to emotional descriptions of the alleged harm to flight attendants, ranging from unrelenting headaches to body tremors, and the detailed rebuttals of the defendants, whose attorneys cited science and statistics to buttress their case.

"This case is not about machines," said Randy Gordon, the lead lawyers for the flight attendants. "This case is about people."

One of the attendants has been so neurologically impaired, Gordon said, that he has covered his walls and doors with Post-it note reminders essentially acting as his brain.

As Gordon recounted the personal stories, many of his clients cried and dabbed their eyes.

Alaska Airlines settled with the flight attendants earlier, agreeing to pay $725,000 without admitting any wrongdoing.

Gordon told the jury AlliedSignal, now owned by Honeywell, produced a faulty mechanism, the auxiliary power unit or APU.

Pilots activate the unit 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.

Gordon said the unit, as installed on the MD-80s, allowed hydraulic and lubrication fluids and exhaust to be sucked into passenger cabins, exposing flight attendants for years to cumulative amounts of chemicals that severely harmed them.

He said McDonnell Douglas, acquired by Boeing in 1997, improperly decided to place the APUs in the lower tail section of MD-80s, allowing normal fluid leaks from above to get into the mechanisms. The plane was certified in 1980 for operation.

Gordon said two AlliedSignal handbooks, one written in 1974 and the other in 1983, said placing APUs in the lower area was the least favorable location.

"Least-favorable location is not our words — not my words — but it's in the installation handbook that the manufacturer, AlliedSignal, gave to McDonnell Douglas," Gordon said.

He told jurors that flight attendants were never warned of the potential health danger. "The evidence will be that the defendants knew about it for decades," he said.

AlliedSignal's attorney, Brad Keller, in his response, acknowledged that some attendants have health problems, including a few with serious maladies.

But the evidence will show, he said, APUs were not responsible.

Experts will testify that leakage into the cabins was so infrequent and the level of chemicals so small, that the instances couldn't be traced to the ill effects alleged by flight attendants, Keller said.

"The evidence will show it's not even close," he said, referring to what he described as much higher toxic levels that would have been required in order to result in serious effects.

During 1.5 million flight hours, Keller said, fewer than 110 incidents were reported of cabin smells on Alaska's MD-80 fleet that might be tied to APUs.

In addition, only 26 of Alaska's 2,000 flight attendants had reported chronic or serious health problems, he said. No pilots complained of similar effects, he added.

While Keller didn't directly explain what might be behind the complaints, he noted flight attendants have stressful jobs that require them to get up early, operate in cramped conditions with dry air, stay in different hotels and deal with demanding passengers.

V. Woolston, attorney for McDonnell Douglas, told jurors it would have been impractical and unworkable to place the APU in an upper location. He also said references in AlliedSignal handbooks regarding the least-preferable location for the APU were among a thousand guidelines that shouldn't be taken out of context.

Steve Miletich can be reached at 206-464-3302 or smiletich@seattletimes.com

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