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WestJet disputes industrial espionage charge

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Canadian discount carrier WestJet Airlines has hit back at claims its executives illegally accessed Air Canada's website. In turn it accuses its larger rival of hiring private detectives to go through bins at the home of a senior WestJet executive.

Air Canada sued WestJet in April over allegations that it improperly used an Air Canada website set-up which allows current and former workers to book air travel, in order to find out how full Air Canada's flights were. WestJet financial analyst Jeffrey Lafond had privileged access to this site after leaving Air Canada subsidiary Canadian Airlines in October 2000. Lafond, along with WestJet's strategic planning VP, Mark Hill, are named in an Air Canada lawsuit that alleges this access was abused to carry out "industrial espionage".

The Canadian press reports that Air Canada allegesWestJet "used Lafond's code to access the site 243,630 times between May 2003 and March 2004". Air Canada charges that WestJet used this data in strategic planning, giving it an unfair advantage. Air Canada is seeking punitive damages of $5m over the allegedly improper snooping.

In a defence statement filed yesterday, Calgary-based WestJet said the information on the Air Canada employee website is not confidential. WestJet claims this information "is available to the public through many sources, including counting passengers and other public websites". WestJet does not dispute that Lafond accessed the Air Canada employee website numerous times, but claims that he did this only to satisfy his own curiosity, rather than for commercial gain.

"WestJet states no information from the Air Canada website was ever used by WestJet for any purpose, and the loss of revenue, profits and goodwill Air Canada alleges it has suffered arises not from any use of information on the website, but from Air Canada's mismanagement of its business, its decision to persist in selling seats on flights for less than cost, its high-cost structure and the poor treatment of its customers," it said.

In its counter-claim, WestJet alleges Air Canada private investigators trespassed twice on the home of Mark Hill "to unlawfully seize WestJet documents that had been shredded and placed in a recycling container for pick up by municipal employees".

"Air Canada then hired a Houston, Texas firm to reconstitute the shredded documents, which include WestJet's confidential and sensitive business and financial information unrelated to Air Canada's claim," it adds.

In its counter-claim WestJet seeks $5m in punitive damages and injunctive and other relief. On 8 July a judge will consider Air Canada's application to grant an injunction prohibiting WestJet from using data it allegedly obtained from its competitor's website. A trial date for the main action is yet to be scheduled. ®

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