BC Ferries is defending its practice of issuing free ferry passes to employees and their families.

An internal document shows that, as of last month, more than 4,200 employees and 3,200 family members had passes.

The policy has been on the books for 20 years and the company makes no apologies for it, BC Ferries spokesperson Deborah Marshall said Tuesday.

Marshall said the practice lets the employees, "walk a mile in the customers' shoes."

Employees are entitled to unlimited personal travel. Spouses and family members are entitled to 24 one-way trips a year. 

The passes are non-transferable and trips can't be carried over year to year if they are not used, Marshall said.   She said employees do not get assured loading when they travel on personal business. They must line up or pay for a reservation like all customers do.

The passes are issued as benefits, on which employees must pay taxes, Marshall said.

Marshall said BC Ferries was still working on putting a dollar value on the free passes policy in response to questions from a Vancouver news organization.

But Scott Hennig, with the Canadian Taxpayers Federation, said the free ride needs to end.

"Taxpayers are already subsidizing BC Ferries and they need to know what they're going to get for their value for their money," he said.

NDP Transportation critic Harry Bains said handing out passes doesn't seem right when rates keep rising and BC Ferries' executives make top dollar.

But BC Ferries president David Hahn told vancouver radio station CKNW that the handout is common practice for transportation companies.

"If you look at airlines around the world, if you look at BC Transit ... at TransLink, they all offer these type of passes," he said.

He said he wants his staff using the passes to take ferries.

"I absolutely want them out there, riding the ferries, being there, experiencing," he said.

With files from the CBC's Jeff Davies and The Canadian Press