Porter Airlines is hitting turbulence with an online poll that critics say misleads voters into supporting the Billy Bishop airport expansion.
In sponsored Facebook
and Twitter posts, the airline is asking users to select their favourite new destination. Once they click through, a site
asks for their postal code, identifies who their local councillor is and encourages them to write or call in support of quiet jets.
Some opponents and councillors are peeved by the campaign, but a Porter spokesman denied it was manipulative.
“We would think that the people who are voting are typically supporters and contacting their councillor is a natural option for them. There’s no requirement to do that,” said Porter spokesman Brad Cicero.
Porter hopes to fly Bombardier’s new CSeries planes from Billy Bishop Toronto City Airport, which would allow the regional carrier to fly to cities farther afield like Vancouver and Miami.
But the airline must win approval from the city
, the port authority and Transport Canada to lift an existing jet ban as well as extend the runway as much as 200 metres at each end.
On March 25, council’s executive committee will decide if councillors should vote on Porter’s proposal on April 1. Officials have urged councillors to put off making a decision until March 2015, after October’s election.
Cicero said the poll is targeted at supporters, since it lets users select far-flung locations like Vancouver, Miami, Los Angeles and New Orleans. The top location will be announced Monday, he added.
But after users cast their vote and enter their postal code, a page appears with their councillor’s name, phone number and a form to send an email of support.
The form is blank, but the site suggests talking points, including that the plan will result in “more than $250 million of incremental economic impact” and that the CS100 jets will meet noise guidelines and produce lower emissions than similar planes.
No personal information is gathered from people who simply vote in the poll, said Cicero. However, those who choose to send an email to their councillor are prompted to enter their name and email address, which Porter does collect and may use to send updates about their expansion plans.
Councillor Mike Layton (Ward 19 — Trinity-Spadina) said he hadn’t noticed an influx of emails supporting the expansion. Layton, who opposes Porter’s plan, questioned whether those who clicked on the poll were getting the full story.
“Does the link also say, ‘Tell your councillor to spend public funds to enrich (Porter CEO Robert) Deluce?’ ” he asked. “Or, ‘Destroy the aquatic environment of the largest freshwater water system in the world?’ ”
City staff estimate it will cost up to $300 million in transit or road infrastructure
to accommodate the increase in passenger traffic. Councillor Adam Vaughan (Ward 20 — Trinity-Spadina) said with so much public money at stake, he wasn’t surprised by Porter’s campaign.
“It’s the same sort of smoke and mirrors that Deluce’s proposal is. He focuses on the destinations but doesn’t talk about what’s happening to the city he lives in,” said Vaughan.
More than 40,000 people have registered their support for expansion onPorterPlans.com
. On the airline’s Facebook page, response to the poll has been mixed but largely positive.
Anshul Kapoor, chair of NoJetsTO
, a citizens’ group opposed to jet expansion, said he hopes councillors take the emails with a grain of salt. “I hope they don’t make a decision based on baseless emails from misled residents.”
Alan Middleton, a marketing professor at York University’s Schulich School of Business, said the poll was fair because it was at least more transparent than other forms of lobbying which often take place behind closed doors.
“In a world where lobbying takes so many different forms, I don’t find this one dramatically offensive,” he said.
Meanwhile, Eric Kirzner, a finance professor at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management, disagreed.
“When you ask people to do something in a questionnaire, you’re supposed to be up front . . . to lure people in and then to spring this is, in my opinion, an inappropriate way to do business.”
With files from Vanessa Lu