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Blockchain in air travel

Published on  22 February by Kevin O'Sullivan , Lead Engineer, SITA Lab
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No one doubts that blockchain distributed ledger technology will disrupt business models across all sectors and countries. The fact it provides something that’s all too often in short supply – trust and transparency for information exchanged between businesses – makes it a compelling future proposition for any business, the full range of air transport organizations notwithstanding.

A new world

Blockchain is a new way for business to trade in products, services and information – but without the friction that inevitably arises when establishing trust between parties. As a ledger of digital events that can be replicated, shared and trusted without the need for central authority, Blockchain offers resiliency, disintermediation, proof against tampering and traceability.

This is a new world  – a world in which businesses can quickly contract, exchange services, record transactions, manage payment and disengage in near-absolute security.

Disruptive combinations

Combined with automation, the Internet of Things, artificial intelligence and robotics, Blockchain’s power to disrupt will be immense, promising a world where business can quickly contract, exchange services, record transactions, manage payment and disengage.

But, as we’ve heard  before, ‘Blockchain is not the thing. It’s simply the thing which enables the thing’. The general perception is that it’s three to five years from maturity. Yet blockchain is already being heralded as a way to reduce operational, governance and regulatory overheads for existing business practices, and to create new business models where the complexity of sharing data in a trusted environment is prohibitive.

Air transport potential

While our industry is already identifying use cases for airlines and airports, what’s really needed is research. We need to establish the suitability and practicalities of using blockchain to establish a ‘single source of truth’ for various data sets in use across our community. This research is one of the many remits of the SITA Lab. There’s also a real need for the industry to take the right approach to ensure governance, standards, compliance, security and more.

Currently dominating this space are a number of startups providing blockchain services. As part of SITA Lab’s groundbreaking work, we’ve engaged with several of them and we’re actively keeping an eye on suppliers and potential partners. We’ve also conducted two major trial projects and explorations of:

  • Ethereum – a blockchain that enables the processing of smart-contracts
  • Hyperledger – a cross-industry collaborative effort from the Linux Foundation designed to support blockchain-based distributed ledgers

We’re also closely monitoring the FinTech blockchain startup space. 

British Airways and Heathrow: 'Smart Contract' trial

The SITA Lab late last year reported on research carried out with British Airways and Heathrow Airport, with support from Geneva and Miami International Airports. Called FlightChain, the project investigated the provision of a single version of the truth for flight status data using a smart contract. This is a private permissioned blockchain – implemented on both Ethereum and Hyperledger-Fabric –   that stores flight information on the blockchain, using a smart contract to arbitrate potentially conflicting data.

SITA Lab’s report sets out a number of key lessons for the air transport community, covering governance, the technology’s level of maturity, the use of smart contracts, system security and the issue of private versus public – as well as system performance, scalability and resilience.

In the meantime, SITA has been trialing the id management capabilities of Smart Path™ in major airports. With Smart Path™, a mix of blockchain, mobile technologies and biometrics means that travelers need only be identified once – at the start of the journey – be it at an airport kiosk or the bag-drop. This could eliminate the need for multiple travel documents without passengers having to share their personal data.

Airlines, airports and other industry stakeholders interested in the FlightChain project are welcome to contact us at SITA Lab for further information.

FlightChain white paper

Research into the usability and practicalities of blockchain technology for the air transport industry

Read our FlightChain white paper

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