Airlines can’t let guard down despite recent spate of hoax threats

WATCH ABOVE: For the fourth time in five nights, a Westjet flight was forced to land after a bomb threat. But this time, the entire scene played out in Calgary. Jill Croteau reports.

There have been five threats made against flights in Canada over the past week – all of which have turned out to be false.

And David Hyde, an independent security consultant, says it’s nearly impossible to tell how many threats are made against planes each year, as airlines won’t share the numbers.

But, with the advent of social media it’s harder to keep each threat – whether credible or not – quiet.

“The media coverage has increased a little bit,” Hyde said.

He went onto suggest that media coverage of one threat could lead to another, either because the media coverage motivates a copycat or rewards the original prankster with attention.

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Despite each incident this week being a hoax, Hyde said, airlines have to take each threat seriously.

“They can’t really afford to let their guard down,” he said.

But there is a lengthy process in determining whether the threat is credible, Hyde said, and much of it comes down to the specificity of the threat.

How do they determine whether the threat is real?

“The more specific that threat is, the more nuanced it is… the more credible that the threat may be, and the more serious the response is,” he said.

Just some of the things Hyde said investigators would look at include how long the call was, was a particular flight targeted, was there a reason given, did the person say the type of bomb, or why, or when it might go off, or what type of device, or where it is. Investigators will even analyze the tone of voice, whether there is background noise, or if the caller had an accent.

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Four of the five threats made in the past week were against WestJet flights, while the fifth was made against Air Canada.

On June 25, a bomb threat found on a note in the bathroom of an Air Canada flight led to the temporary closure of St. John’s International Airport in Newfoundland.

The second threat occurred Saturday on a flight from Halifax to Edmonton. That flight was diverted to Saskatoon. No explosives were found.

WestJet flight 323 travelling from Toronto to Saskatoon on Tuesday was forced to land after receiving a threat about an alleged explosive device. The plane landed safely and was cleared by Saskatoon police.

WATCH: Another WestJet flight was evacuated after receiving a report of an alleged explosive device on Tuesday night. Alyssa Julie, a Global News producer, was on the flight and describes what happened to her and the other passengers.

A Westjet flight had to be evacuated on Monday after an unspecified threat. The Boeing 737 had left Toronto about an hour before when it was forced to make an emergency landing. Six passengers were injured when leaving the plane.

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And another WestJet flight was the target of a hoax Wednesday. Flight 722 from Vancouver to Toronto was forced to land in Calgary “out of an abundance of caution” as a result.

Will the threats affect Canadian airlines?

It’s unlikely the threats will have any long-term effects, however. Ambarish Chandra, an assistant professor at the Rotman School of Management, said in an interview that threats do happen occasionally but it’s unlikely people won’t fly as a result.

“I think people will very quickly realize that this appears to be some sort of malicious targeting and not just of the airlines in general but of WestJet in particular,” Chandra said. “I’d be surprised if it has any negative repercussions for WestJet.”

More often than not, bomb threats are a hoax

Hoax or not, fake threats against airlines are a crime in Canada (and elsewhere) and can lead to charges.

Police are investigating the fake threats.

A British teenager was arrested last week, accused of being behind numerous threats against buildings and planes in the United States.

According to The Daily Mail, the British teen would use a Twitter account to make the threats, including one against a United Airlines flight.

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In that case, the message read: “Flight 223 has a bomb on it, and a passenger in seat 26 has a loaded mac 11,” according to The Daily Mail.

“It more often is done to create disruption, sometimes there’s nothing been planted. Sometimes there’s a fake device with wires,” Hyde said.

However terrorist groups have called in legitimate threats in the past. Hyde pointed out that the Provisional Irish Republican Army (PIRA) used to notify British police of a bomb as they wanted to target the responding law enforcement officials.

Neither Air Canada nor WestJet would say how many threats are made against the airlines each year citing a policy of not discussing security issues with the media. WestJet also sent a pre-written statement which can be read below.

WestJet comment:

For the fourth time in five days, WestJet has experienced a bomb threat against our aircraft. Tonight, WestJet 722 from Vancouver to Toronto was diverted to Calgary out of an abundance of caution. Like the other three incidents, no bomb was found and the aircraft was cleared by police and returned to us. This was yet another hoax.

We worked closely tonight with the Calgary Airport Authority and Calgary Police Service to ensure the safety of our guests and crew and we thank our partners for their hard work and dedication. We also thank our guests for their patience and understanding, as they resume their journey tonight on other WestJet flights.

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We understand and appreciate that four false threats in five days is generating a great deal of interest and unfortunately, rumour and speculation. We will not comment on these rumours nor will we share information about how we handle with these incidents, for obvious reasons. We will continue to work closely with law enforcement to find those responsible. Safety remains our top priority and we will continue to be vigilante to keep our guests and our crews safe.  

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