Decoding blockchain, part 3: Flight data management

Depending on who
you listen to, cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin, Ethereum, and Litecoin will
either change fundamental aspects of people’s daily lives – financial services,
healthcare, retail and, yes, travel – or they’re a sham, a prime example of
much ado about nothing.

There is less
debate, though, about the underlying system that powers those cryptocurrencies:
blockchain.

While models are still being developed and hypotheses tested, we’re
starting to see consensus that blockchain may provide a viable – and valuable – architecture to improve nearly any system that relies on a transaction, whether
that exchange is information, or money or something else.

As part of this
month’s focus on blockchain, we’re aiming to unpack this abstract concept by
sharing real industry examples of how this new decentralized ledger system could
be put into action.

For our third
report, we examine a test of blockchain to manage flight data.

Background

Data sharing is a
complicated – and sometimes disjointed – process in the air transport industry.
The creation and storage of information for each flight is handled by multiple entities,
at minimum the arrival and departure airports and the airline.

And even when the
parties involved are sharing data, problems can arise because the information is
stored on separate databases.

“Inevitably, they drift out of sync, and the end result is the passenger
turns up at the airport and their phone says one thing about the flight status,
the screen says another, and you can have airline staff seeing a different data
set,” says Kevin O’Sullivan, lead engineer for SITA Lab, the technology
research arm at SITA.

“There’s no single version of the truth when it comes to what the
status of any individual flight is.”

In the airline industry, this type of weakness can create multiple
risks, from negatively impacting passenger experience and long-term brand
perception to creating vulnerabilities in safety and security.

Last year SITA Lab set out to explore whether blockchain could provide
a viable solution to the problems with flight data management – whether it
could provide that desired “single version of truth.”

The project, dubbed FlightChain, was conducted in partnership with
Heathrow Airport and International Airlines Group’s British Airways. Geneva Airport and Miami
International Airport joined after it was underway to help test scalability.

Benefits
of blockchain

Blockchain has several characteristics that suit the problem SITA was
trying to solve.

It’s built as a distributed ledger, where all participants have
access to all transactions, and those transactions are cryptographically stored
so they cannot be altered.

Multiple entities can access and update common data sets on a
blockchain, and those actions are visible to all participants.

And maybe the most important characteristic of blockchain, says O’Sullivan,
is that the system is powered by automated “smart” contracts, rather than one
entity having control.

“There are existing solutions to share data, but this allows
shared control of the data – a subtly different way of viewing it,” O’Sullivan
says.

“If you used an alternative technology to share a single database
you have issues over who has control of that. Using a smart contract on the
blockchain meant the control went to the consensus of what the rules of that
smart contract were.”

FlightChain
test

SITA and its partners created two private permissioned blockchains,
one built on Ethereum and one built on Hyperledger Fabric, so they could test difference
between the two technologies.

Each participant had its own node on the blockchain, and
transactions ran through a smart contract, which flagged any discrepancies.

“As British Airways would update details about a flight and Heathrow
would update details about a flight, it would get processed through the smart
contract and then, assuming it passed the rules, it would get written off the blockchain
and then distributed to all the parties,” O’Sullivan says.

“So there was in effect just a single version of what the actual
status of a flight was.”

During the project, the blockchain system
processed and stored more than two million flight changes.

“Heathrow’s participation in FlightChain with
SITA Lab has been very valuable,” says Stuart Harwood, Heathrow Automation and
Innovation, HAL.

“We are still early in the blockchain technology cycle, and
more research is required, but FlightChain has shown the opportunities for
shared control of data with our industry partners.”

The
verdict

O’Sullivan says the blockchain functioned in the way they expected
– it did streamline the sharing of data, keep the data in sync and create that
single version of truth.

But he says the technology is still “immature,” and solutions need
to be created to make it more user-friendly.

“We found it quite complicated to set up and to maintain,” he
says.

“This was about four airports, British Airways and ourselves. If
it scaled to the whole industry, then certainly at the moment it would be a
management headache to keep control of the whole system.”

Next steps

O’Sullivan says the report on FlightChain, published in November,
has generated substantial interest from other airlines and airports, and
discussions are underway to determine next steps.

But in an industry where parties are continually shuffling information
back and forth, he sees broad potential to create efficiencies via blockchain.

Possibilities include involving IATA and ACI to coordinate creation
of smart contracts, for example to streamline the management and dissemination
of industry standards.

O’Sullivan says: “I can see a future where our industry standards
that are generally issued in big PDF documents that are hard to read and
interpret … they’ll simply be transcoded into smart contracts and deployed on a
blockchain, so there is consistent enforcement of the industry rules. That
could be quite beneficial.”

Additional use cases include using blockchain to store aircraft
maintenance records and cargo and passenger manifests.

“It was great to trial this technology, which has the potential to
improve the accuracy and sharing of data between industry players,” says Glenn
Morgan, IAG’s head of digital business transformation.

“We’re excited about the opportunities that blockchain and smart
contracts can provide to aviation and will look to apply it across different
parts of our business.”

But there are hurdles, such as government regulations and the question
of whether airlines, airports and other industry affiliates are willing to
adapt their long-standing internal processes to this new model.

“It’s not really about the
technology. It’s about the culture of business and government and how to use
the technology,” O’Sullivan says.

“I think we are still looking at a number of years before it
becomes more mainstream.”

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