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Why aviation needs to get the measure of blockchain

Published on  01 August by Barry McLaughlin , Lead Architect, Advanced Technology Office, SITA Lab
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In this second of our series of blockchain blogs, I would like to explain why I believe we in the air transport industry need to get the measure of blockchain. From my perspective, the one thing that makes blockchain relevant to the air transport industry is its potential to securely share information – such as identity and flight operations data – across numerous stakeholders without relinquishing control or compromising the security of the data.

Blockchain, collaboration and the seamless journey

While it’s currently in the Gartner Hype Cycle’s ‘trough of disillusionment’, as I said in my last blog, blockchain technology is largely seen as a potential tool to enable the seamless journey of the future and industry stakeholder collaboration around operational data.

It holds the promise to deliver transparency across the network, acting as a ‘single source of truth’ in the chain of custody of information and in its value in streamlining complex supply chain processes. Blockchain is a technology that we've been investigating for some time now. As the technology matures, our current research is focusing less on the technical aspects and more on figuring out which uses make sense and where Blockchain can deliver the most value for the industry.

That includes the launch of SITA’s Aviation Blockchain Sandbox, a collaborative cross-industry research project to explore blockchain, which continues to gain more users and industry interest.

Collaborative cross-industry research

Recently, a group of major Chinese airlines and airports joined the FlightChain project taking place in the Sandbox, and they’re now contributing flight operations data to the network.

Separately, we’re working with a Euro-based group comprising an airline, airport, ground handler and air traffic control to see how to utilize blockchain to improve collaboration and data sharing between various aviation stakeholders. And among other initiatives, we’re members of BITA (Blockchain in Transport Alliance), the focus of which is to drive standards and enable technology adoption.

What does blockchain mean to me and my business?

So, there’s plenty of interest and momentum, and I’m pleased to say we’re engaged with many other stakeholders across the industry. During our engagements, the first question we often hear is: ‘What does blockchain mean to me and my business?’ Well, to put it succinctly, it’s all about how in the future we’ll be handling data and working together within the air transport industry.

Just think about that data. More than half of the 7bn people in the world today (3.7bn) use the internet. This digital traffic and activity alone creates vast amounts of data. Then there’s the rise of the Internet of Things (IoT) and connected devices. Every day, the 1 trillion or so connected devices in the world generate 2.5 quintillion bytes of data. I admit, I had to check this number: one quintillion is 1 with 18 zeros! The impact of all this data on us as individuals is phenomenal.

And industries are impacted too: the aviation supply chain

But let’s think about the impact of data on aviation and in the context of ‘a trip’. Every passenger trip involves at least one airline, at least two airports, and possibly several government agencies. 

If we extend that view further, the airline has a vast number of participants in its supply chain that enable a trip: the payment service provider, a booking solution, inventory and pricing systems, a departure control system, loyalty program, and many other suppliers. Then there’s the aircraft, the crew, catering, fuel, manufacturing, parts and maintenance, certification, and more.

Air transport’s challenge

So it’s a complex supply chain, a complex industry, and a complex data problem to solve. The need for new approaches and solutions is paramount. This complexity creates a big challenge for the air transport industry, particularly when you think that:  

  • There are concerns about data privacy and cybersecurity.
  • As such, there’s distrust among parties, and a lack of integration and standards. Each party maintains its own systems, collects its own data, and uses it for its own purposes.
  • There’s no existing mechanism to easily share transactional information among stakeholders in near time, let alone one that supports real-time communications.

So where does blockchain come into the frame?

What we’re talking about here are endemic industry challenges: the aggregation of data; addressing privacy and security concerns; creating a trust framework to enable sharing of information among parties; and providing accurate, timely transaction-based information and reporting.

This is all about simplifying complex air transport processes to support seamless travel and stakeholder collaboration. The big question is, when we look at the technology tools at our disposal to solve these endemic industry challenges, which one comes into the frame? 

Blockchain has the potential key enablers for our industry

At SITA, we are looking beyond the hype of blockchain to the practical aspect of this technology , which is why we’re focusing on blockchain innovation and trials with our customers and other industry parties. The implication of such a technology could be profound for air transport, so we want to get the measure of this potentially game-changing technology. 

This is the second in a series of blockchain blogs. The first one is Blockchain: are we asking the wrong questions?

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