WestJet is shelving a tactic that asked frequent flyers to record in-flight service aboard the airline and its rivals — a strategy union officials condemned as “unacceptable,” warning that secret taping of flight attendants would be a violation of privacy rules.
The Calgary-based airline made the request of a few guests who regularly fly with WestJet and its competition, asking them to capture their experience.
According to details posted on a WestJet internal online forum reviewed by CBC News, the feedback was gathered via an app that let respondents type comments, snap a photo or record video.
“The ask was aimed at understanding the elements of their journey that stood out and/or impressed them, as well as understanding where we can do better,” wrote a member of WestJet’s research and insights team.
“This type of feedback is very valuable when it comes to product development and informing future decisions.”
The research team member wrote that it was never the intention of the project to record video of cabin crew members or any other WestJet employee.
Violation of privacy, union says
But the Canadian Union of Public Employees, which represents flight attendants at Air Canada and is trying to do the same at WestJet, said it recently learned that WestJet had allegedly asked some customers to secretly videotape flight attendants in their workplace.
CUPE called that “unacceptable and extremely disappointing.”
The union said it would be a “basic violation” of the right to privacy and a violation of WestJet policy, which prohibits the “filming, photographing, or recording images, by any electronic means, of other guests and/or cabin crew or flight crew without the express consent of the person(s) being filmed, photographed or recorded.”
“It certainly speaks to the culture of disrespect at the executive level of WestJet toward the people who have built the company up,” said CUPE spokesman Hugh Pouliot.
At WestJet’s annual meeting on Tuesday, the airline’s CEO Ed Sims said there was “absolutely no intention to upset flight attendants as a consequence of that action.”
“I apologize to any flight attendants, unreservedly, for those who were upset or offended by that action,” Sims told reporters.
He said WestJet would not ask passengers to film inside aircraft in the future.
Passenger ‘uncomfortable’ with request
The issue emerged in a post on one of the company’s internal forums during an exchange between a flight attendant and a member of the airline’s research and insights team.
The flight attendant relayed how she had spoken with a passenger who was “uncomfortable” about a WestJet survey that he said had asked him to record any positive experience he’d had in business class aboard another airline.
The passenger said he’d also been asked if he would be comfortable making a recording of a WestJet experience he was not happy with.
In response, the research team member told the flight attendant that although this type of “in-moment experience capture” is quite common in the research world, the project had been closed since the end of March and there were no plans to relaunch, “especially given how this was interpreted.”
He also said that even though the app lets people record video if they wish, “at no point were the participating guests directed to ‘record video.'” However, he said the instructions were left too open for interpretation.
Building a library of ‘service moments’
Sims said Tuesday the goal was to build a library of the “service moments” that mean most to its guests.
“We asked our guests to capture what is the most important — whether it’s interaction with our outstanding flight attendants, whether it’s their meal service — whatever those moments are that they value most, either in our service or in our competitors’ services,” Sims said.
“We aren’t looking to repeat the request to film onboard our aircraft in the future.”
Air Canada spokeswoman Angela Mah said customers are requested to refrain from filming or photographing its crews when asked. She said the airline does not video or photograph its cabin crew as part of the airline’s customer service management program.
If passengers were asked to record video of flight crews, it would raise potential legal and privacy concerns, said Fred Lazar, an expert on the airline industry at York University’s Schulich School of Business.
It could even result in a privacy lawsuit, he said.
“It’s one thing if you want to film certain things on board, before you board, [and] you’re not filming people — I think that’s acceptable,” Lazar said. “Once you’re starting to film people, then you’re into privacy issues.”
Research not uncommon
But Marvin Ryder, an assistant professor of marketing at McMaster University, wasn’t surprised the airline would seek this kind of information. He said it’s quite common for companies in other sectors to solicit this kind of feedback.
“Although I’ve not heard of this in the context of other airlines, what WestJet was asking people to do is not that unusual in terms of other kinds of businesses,” he said. “A great example would be restaurants.”
However, Ryder suspects there wouldn’t have been a great deal of video taken during the project because video is more difficult to take than a photo.
Given that a company generally has to provide some kind of reward in return for this kind of information, “it’s not a cheap way of gathering data,” Ryder said.
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Sherwood Park is a large hamlet in Alberta, Canada within Strathcona County that is recognized as an urban service area. It is located adjacent to the City of Edmonton’s eastern boundary, generally south of Highway 16 (Yellowhead Trail), west of Highway 21 and north of Highway 630 (Wye Road). Other portions of Sherwood Park extend beyond Yellowhead Trail and Wye Road, while Anthony Henday Drive (Highway 216) separates Refinery Row to the west from the balance of the hamlet to the east.
Sherwood Park was established in 1955 on farmland of the Smeltzer family, east of Edmonton. With a population of 70,618 in 2016, Sherwood Park has enough people to be Alberta’s seventh largest city, but technically retains the status of a hamlet. The Government of Alberta recognizes the Sherwood Park Urban Service Area as equivalent to a city.
Sherwood Park, originally named Campbelltown, was founded by John Hook Campbell and John Mitchell in 1953 when the Municipal District of Strathcona No. 83 approved their proposed development of a bedroom community east of Edmonton. The first homes within the community were marketed to the public in 1955. Canada Post intervened on the name of Campbelltown due to the existence of several other communities in Canada within the same name, so the community’s name was changed to Sherwood Park in 1956.
The Sherwood Park Urban Service Area is located in the Edmonton Capital Region along the western edge of central Strathcona County adjacent to the City of Edmonton. The majority of the community is bound by Highway 16 (Yellowhead Highway) to the north, Highway 21 to the east, Highway 630 (Wye Road) to the south, and Anthony Henday Drive (Highway 216) to the west. The Refinery Row portion of Sherwood Park is located across Anthony Henday Drive to the west, between Sherwood Park Freeway and Highway 16. Numerous developments fronting the south side of Wye Road, including Wye Gardens, Wye Crossing, Salisbury Village and the Estates of Sherwood Park, are also within the community. Lands north of Highway 16 and south of Township Road 534/Oldman Creek between Range Road 232 (Sherwood Drive) to the west and Highway 21 to the east are also within the Sherwood Park urban service area.