updated 10/13/2009 2:21:24 PM ET 2009-10-13T18:21:24

A passenger rights advocate accused Delta Air Lines Inc. in a federal lawsuit Tuesday of conspiring with a Virginia company to obtain hacked e-mails from her computer to help them derail her efforts to protect air travelers from lengthy tarmac delays and other inconveniences.

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The suit, filed by Kate Hanni of FlyersRights.org in U.S. District Court in Houston, seeks at least $11 million in damages and a jury trial.

A spokesman for the world's biggest airline operator, Trebor Banstetter, denied that Delta hacked Hanni's e-mail account. He says Delta can't comment further on the lawsuit.

"Obviously, the idea that Delta would hack into someone's e-mail is clearly without merit," Banstetter said in an e-mail to The Associated Press.

Hanni and her group have been a thorn in the side of the airline industry, pushing Congress to enact a passenger bill of rights at a time when airlines are suffering from big revenue declines thanks to weak demand for air travel.

Among other things, Hanni supports a three-hour time limit on how long airlines can strand passengers on airport tarmacs. Legislation pending in the Senate would require that passengers be allowed to deplane after a three-hour wait.

There are exceptions for instances when the pilot believes the plane will take off in the next half-hour or it might be unsafe to leave the plane.

The lawsuit claims that while Hanni was sharing information with a graduate student working for Metron Aviation Inc. of Dulles, Va., her personal computer files and FlyersRights.org e-mail accounts were hacked. She said her service provider, America Online, confirmed the e-mail accounts were hacked.

The lawsuit alleges that in late September, Metron executives confronted the graduate student with the stolen e-mails and claimed Delta was angry about Hanni getting information that would help pass the passenger bill of rights.

Hanni says that Metron officials claimed that Delta had provided them with the stolen e-mails.

In addition to the e-mails, Hanni said that spreadsheets, lists of donors and personal files were compromised by the alleged hacking.

The lawsuit, which also names Metron as a defendant, does not make clear specifically what was in the e-mails or who exactly committed the alleged hacking.

A spokesman for Metron Aviation, which provides research, airspace design, environmental analysis and software development services to the global air traffic industry and lists Delta as a customer, did not immediately respond to a telephone message seeking comment.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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