Travel: Airlines, your data & Political campaigns

Do you know what your subscription to a Privacy Notice might deliver?

Frank examines the use of personal data for a commercial political campaign and the issues for Consumers

Hello and welcome to my latest Travel Podcast; thanks for joining me today! 

A few days ago I was contacted by some cabin crew who are based on mainland Europe. 

They told me a story of how one airline had decided to launch a public petition, borne out of their frustration with air traffic control strikes and how those strikes affected their operations as they flew over a particular country. 

You’re probably wondering why I am being so vague, in not naming the country that the cabin crew came from, the name of the airline nor indeed the offending country! Well it’s quite simple really. In the first instance I don’t want to identify the location of the cabin-crew because I want to maintain their privacy, Secondly, wherever I have made public commentary about Travel Companies, the situation would have to be exceptional for me to name the said company. That way, I am showing the company in question some respect but also, as I talk about every-day travel matters, it is those matters that are important, not the identity of a company. Because if I concentrate on the issues, it allows me to concentrate on what I have to say about those issues and what I say to you, the Consumer. And finally, for the same reasons that I don’t tend to name Companies, I think in this case, it is the issues rather than a country that we should concentrate on. 

So, that’s out of the way, I can now tell you what I was told about by these cabin-crew members. 

The airline in this story has publicly complained how when air traffic control strikes occur in this country, the government invokes minimum service levels, to allow for domestic flights to continue up to a point. The beef in their complaint relates to how these minimum levels are not extended to transitory flights over this country. It appears that the airline may have complained to the European Commission, calling for action, but it appears that solutions are some way off. 

Not deterred, the airline decided to launch a Public campaign to further their aims. 

That campaign involves a Public petition and when that petition reaches a certain level of signatures, they intend to present their petition to the European Commission, no doubt citing how much Consumer support their call for action enjoys. 

The petition was initially launched on a public platform but has since been moved to their corporate website. 

In order to achieve that signature level, they have decided to utilise their customer-base’s data and contact them directly, urging them to sign their petition. To emphasise their political goals, they have further provided script to be read to passengers by their cabin-crew. The script apologises for the delay suffered to their flight and places the blame firmly on the said country for failing to ensure that strike action does not affect over-flights of that country. It then encourages passengers to sign their petition, either through their website or app. 

Now I fly with a number of different airlines across Europe and have for many years created accounts for each airline and joined their various loyalty schemes. So, it will not be a surprise to you to hear that I have also received an e mail from this airline. 

Understandably, the airline sets out its stall about the problems it has faced and the number of flights it has had to cancel. The e mail encourages me to sign the petition to protect passenger flights and the operation of the EU’s Single Market. 

A press release on the corporate website refers for the need for action to protect the right to Free Movement of People in the European Union. 

I thought both propositions, Free Movement and the Single Market, sat slightly at odds with the petition and indeed what those propositions actually mean. 

For example, Free Movement is one of the four freedoms of the Single Market of the EU and simply means that under Article 45 of the TFEU, it guarantees the ability of EU Citizens to get another job in another EU country, work without the requirement for a work permit, to reside in that country where they will work, to remain in that country even if their work contract ends, and to enjoy equal treatment with that country’s citizens on the issues of accessing employment, working conditions, social, health & tax advantages. There is nothing within this definition that states that your holiday flight benefits from the provisions of Free Movement of People, so it was curious to see that phrase. 

With regards to the Single Market, the airline may have a point to make, but, the Single Market has four distinct freedoms; the Freedom of Movement of Goods, Capital, Services and People. The Single Market is highly regulated to ensure that Member States rules and regulations are harmonised and includes Regulations on workers’ rights, including the right to strike as guaranteed by the Charter of Fundamental Freedoms of the European Union and the European Convention on Human Rights. So in any representations made by the airline to the European Union, with the benefit of a Consumer petition, is not going to be a one-way street because the Single Market is not just about the rights of businesses, so again, it’s a curious position to take. 

Perhaps they are relying on Consumers not fully understanding the principles of the European Union, and importantly, how is the European Union going to deal with UK Citizens who sign the petition, and may be attracted by the phrases used, to promote a press release or petition; surely they will have to be disallowed because the European Commission will quite correctly state that they can only take into consideration the views of European Citizens. 

Talking of the views of European Citizens, I was puzzled why this petition was launched the way it has been, because if the airline seeks to influence the policy and laws of the European Union, why did it not create a petition on the EU’s Portal website; again, curious? 

I then reflected on the method by which the airline was contacting Consumers from its database. 

I wondered whether their privacy notice would allow for such approaches? When you give your details over to an airline or travel company, you may tick the Ts&Cs box which would also include a Privacy Note, and expect that a Travel Company could or would use your data to speak with you about your flight, their broader services or special offers. That would be the natural expectation in the minds of Consumers through the use of their data. 

It is quite likely that many Consumers would not imagine that their data would not be used or included in what is after all a political campaign? Remembering of course that some countries are not members of the EU or may have anti-EU sentiments, and some will be trade unionists and believe strongly in the right to strike, some may prefer to keep their politics to themselves, some might be offended. 

I looked at the airline’s Privacy Policy and most of it was expected and appeared quite normal. When I reached almost the end of the Privacy notice, the Consumer is advised that their booking or location data could be used to provide information which they believe could be of interest to the Consumer with the legal justification to improve service or enhancing a Consumer experience, noting that the Consumer can opt out at any time from this permission. 

I suspect that very few Consumers actually read the Ts&Cs or Privacy Notice and so probably the extensive range of permissions given by ticking that box at the time of booking, is a gateway to unwittingly receiving information you may not want to receive. 

Of course the law applicable to data is contained within the General Data Protection Regulations, which has been imported onto the UK Statute Books following Brexit. The Regulations make it clear that in the use and processing of data, the holder or processor of that data has to demonstrate a legitimate reason or reasons for its use. 

The question remains of course, that given the complexity of issues raised against the European Union, against a commercial imperative and an expectation from Consumers that their data will generally only be used to aid with their booking, flight and service received from the airline, is the political information and encouragement that accompanies that information, legitimate? 

Further, those who engage in signing the petition, which also requires you to agree Ts&Cs and a Privacy Notice, are they then open to any other political campaign or lobbying effort initiated by the airline? 

This is an interesting development and I suspect that other airlines and travel companies will be watching this space very closely, because the creation of a political community in a commercial space, through the use of personal data, could lead to unforeseen consequences in the balancing of individual citizen rights against the rights of the commercial world.

It must all surely come down to what constitutes legitimate use of data; as a society, we need to exercise great caution in the mobilisation of Consumers for a political cause through the use of personal data, without that Consumer fully understanding how that ‘permission’ will be used. It might seem like a good idea to that Consumer and maybe they could lend their support, but political support is quite different to the information we expect to receive when we purchase products or services. We all need to take a long hard look at this development. 

The moral of the story is to check out those Privacy Notices, no matter which company you choose to travel with and take control over what information you want to give or information to receive! 

Until the next time, take care.

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