updated 4/6/2006 3:14:15 PM ET 2006-04-06T19:14:15

Flight attendants at Northwest Airlines Corp. are raising safety concerns about the airline's program to sell exit-row seats with extra legroom to passengers willing to pay a $15 fee.

The Professional Flight Attendants Association sent a letter released Wednesday to Northwest Chief Executive Doug Steenland calling the idea "ill conceived," alleging it degrades federal safety rules about who can sit in the exit row.

Passengers who sit in exit-rows must be at least 15 years old and be willing and able to help with the emergency evacuation of the aircraft, including opening the emergency door.

NWA passengers who pay to reserve one of the seats online or at a kiosk check a box indicating they accept the conditions. The process has been approved by the Federal Aviation Administration.

Jeanne Elliott, the union's regulatory affairs coordinator, wrote, "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."

She also claimed the fee could be "misconstrued to allow bad behavior, or used to solicit preferential treatment," according to the letter posted on the union's Web site.

Northwest spokesman Kurt Ebenhoch said from a safety standpoint the "Coach Choice" program was no different than the old system in which passengers also indicated they accepted the responsibilities of sitting in an exit row at check-in.

"If for some reason they are unable to meet the requirements of sitting in an exit row, and happened to have paid for a Coach Choice seat assignment, they are eligible to receive a refund," Ebenhoch said.

He noted four other airlines already have programs in place to charge for the best seats in coach class.

In March, Northwest announced the program, which applies to about 5 percent of seats on domestic flights, including exit-row seats or aisle seats near the front of the cabin.

Northwest's exit-row seats can have 10 inches to 13 inches of extra leg room, and many air travelers prefer the convenience and extra elbow room of aisle seats to center and window seats.

Eagan-based Northwest, the nation's fourth-largest airline, has been operating under Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection since September.

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