Will WestJet bomb scares ruin airline's squeaky clean brand?

Recent diversions of WestJet planes following bomb hoaxes could have a lasting effect on the airline's meticulously manicured brand, aviation experts say. But there is not much it can do about it except hope police find their man.

'In situations like this, the airline is a victim too,' says aviation analyst

The string of bomb threats made against WestJet planes over the past several days is highly unusual in the context of Canadian aviation history. (Darryl Dyck/Canadian Press)

It's been a frustrating week for WestJet and many of its passengers.

In recent days, five of the Calgary-based airline's planes were targeted by hoax threats, the latest on Thursday night on a flight from Las Vegas to Victoria. No explosives were found on any of the aircraft.

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While the immediate operational costs to WestJet (and local law enforcement) are considerable, the unsettling spate of diversions and emergency evacuations is unlikely to have lasting consequences for the airline's lauded brand, analysts say — assuming the threats stop soon.

The airline is one of Canada's top-ranked brands and has amassed a loyal following rarely seen in the aviation world. But some marketing experts say that a persistent "global paranoia" surrounding air disasters could cause problems for even a company as popular as WestJet.

"It's unfortunate for WestJet, but most passengers realize that in situations like this, the airline is a victim too," says Mike Boyd, president of the Colorado-based aviation consulting firm The Boyd Group.

"There's just not much WestJet can do about it, other than follow the proper safety protocols. They can't stop someone from calling in and making threats, even if it's empty threats."

Certainly the added costs of diversions are an ugly proposition for any airline. According the International Air Transport Association, a global airline trade group, diversions ignite a "cascade" of operational costs that can run from $15,000 US for domestic flights to more than $100,000 US for large planes flying internationally.

WestJet flies an average of 420 flights every day, so five diversions are, from a cost perspective, fairly negligible. Boyd points out that a "nasty storm over Calgary" could end up costing an airline like WestJet more money than phoney threats aimed at specific flights.

The more troubling question for WestJet's future is how the airline's meticulously manicured brand might be affected, and marketing and communications experts are seemingly split on the answer. 

'Trust capital'

WestJet, more than any other Canadian airline in an industry driven mainly by price competitiveness, has worked hard to cultivate "trust capital" with its customers, says Alexandre Sévigny, an associate professor of communications at McMaster University.

Sevigny points to WestJet's lauded Christmas advertising campaigns and strong social media presence, which he says generates good will among Canadians and "more importantly generated trust with their brand."

"Now they have that trust capital in the bank when customers are asked to put their faith in WestJet as a company. It pays off in spades in situations like this."

An officer with the Explosive Disposal Unit of the Saskatoon police had to remove two cats from a plane due to high heat during a bomb investigation this week. No bomb was found on the plane. (Saskatoon Police Service/CP)

There's no question that the company has largely managed to develop a positive public image. Last year, Canadian Business magazine ranked WestJet as third among the country's "top 25 brands."

Boyd even goes as far as to call some die-hard WestJet customers "groupies," adding that the fact that Canadians don't have a "laundry list of airlines" to fly domestically only strengthens the airline's appeal.

A 'global paranoia'

WestJet, however, is still an airline, and airlines occupy an exceptional space in the minds of consumers because the stakes are so high.  
The latest incident was the third hoax involving a bomb scare and the fourth threat overall against the airline in the past five days 2:46

"They are taking people from place to place, and essentially they are dealing in life and death and people know that," says Gurprit Kindra, professor of marketing at the University of Ottawa and chair of the Telfer School of Management.

Though the five diversions prompted by recent threats represent just .01 per cent of WestJet's daily flights, that low ratio is simply not most people's first consideration, Kindra argues, especially in a post-9/11 world.

"This is also part of a global paranoia, if you can call it that. When it comes to flying, people aren't necessarily thinking rationally. That could mean these threats end up doing the airline a good deal of damage if they continue," he says.

'I could hear the screaming'

WestJet said earlier this week that they are working "closely with law enforcement to find those responsible."

Even in the case that the threats are linked to a single person or group, the fact remains that anonymous bomb threats are easy to make and airlines have no choice but to consider each and every one as a legitimate threat, no matter the cost or potential repercussions to their public image.

"If an airline is told there is a bomb on an airplane, and if then the airplane doesn't land and the bomb goes off, the airline is going to pay the price," Jock Williams, a former flight safety expert with Transport Canada, told CBC News.

Williams remembers hearing tapes of hysterical reactions from passengers when they are told mid-flight that a bomb threat has been made against the plane.

"I could hear the screaming in the background. They get so upset they lose control of themselves," he recalls.

Aviation security experts agree that the key to ending bomb hoaxes is to find and prosecute culprits to the full extent of the law. Authorities in this case will likely first look at disgruntled former employees, for example, or a customer who claims to have had a bad experience aboard a WestJet flight.

"It is a federal criminal offence and the Mounties will be looking for them," Williams said. 


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