Société Internationale de Télécommunications Aéronautiques (SITA) has created an experimental blockchain called FlightChain to test the efficacy of blockchain in making air travel data more trustworthy, secure, and efficient.
SITA provides IT and telecommunications services for 90% of the world’s air travel industry. Apparently, it does business with almost every airline and airport in the world. For the FlightChain experiment, SITA partnered with Heathrow Airport Holdings Limited (HAL) in London and International Airlines Group (IAG), and then expanded the project to Geneva Airport and Miami International Airport, which proved the scalability of FlightChain.
A burgeoning sector rich with data
The air travel industry is one of the most critical pieces of infrastructure in our inter-connected world. In 2004, there were roughly 2 billion passengers on airplanes globally, and this number has steadily increased year over year to 4.579 billion passengers in 2019. In 2017, it was estimated that there were nearly 10,000 airplanes flying at any given time. Further, the airline industry is also crucial when it comes to global commerce, with 63.7 metric tonnes of cargo carried in 2018 which generated USD 109.8 billion in revenue.
This extreme level of air travel activity generates a constant torrent of important data. For each flight there is data regarding takeoff time, landing time, where the plane is located at any given time, the passengers being carried, the cargo being carried, and this is multiplied by the average of 10,000 airplanes that are flying at any given moment. Blockchain technology has the potential to change the way the air travel industry stores all of this data, providing the alternative of a single distributed and immutable ledger, versus the current situation where airline data comes from many different sources and is often conflicting.
Overcoming the many truths of flight data
There is a common problem in the air travel industry called the “flight data problem”, where there are multiple subsets of flight data that are not easily accessible to all parties, leading to no single truth about all flight data. This is the problem that FlightChain aims to resolve.
FlightChain was tested on both the Ethereum blockchain and Hyperledger-Fabric from IBM. These blockchains are ideal for air travel data storage since they can handle 30 transactions per second and 100,000 transactions per second respectively. Data from Heathrow International Airport, Geneva Airport, Miami International Airport, and British Airways was merged and stored on the blockchain, and smart contracts were utilized to handle potentially conflicting data.
A private permissioned blockchain was used for FlightChain, so that only authorized organizations had the ability to act as a node, i.e. the ability to write to the blockchain. The data from various airlines and airports using FlightChain was uploaded in real-time, and a smart contract running on each node validated the data and then wrote it onto the blockchain. Ultimately, data from over 2 million flights was stored on FlightChain, and this stored data could be queried at any time in the future.
It was found that governance was important for FlightChain, with a reputable caretaker needed to add accounts and organizations to the network, manage permission levels, deploy and upgrade smart contracts and updates, add nodes, and revoke access. FlightChain envisions that the International Air Transport Association (IATA) and Airport Council International (ACI), as well as SITA, could act as the trusted caretakers to manage a blockchain for air travel data in the future.
Programmable aviation standards
Also, the FlightChain white paper speculates that air industry legal standards and protocols could be coded up as smart contracts in the blockchain. The CTO of SITA, Jim Peters, says:
“Industry bodies such as ACI and IATA, working with SITA as the neutral IT provider to the air transport community, could be involved in the establishment of the contract. In fact, we can imagine a future where industry standards are written directly as smart contracts instead of published as PDF documents”.
The benefit of using blockchain technology to store flight data, and in particular a private permissioned blockchain like FlightChain, is that only authorized sources can submit data to the blockchain, and then the smart contracts ensure that there is no conflicting data. The end result is a database that is immutable and truthful, and people accessing the database know that the data is from official sources and has not been maliciously modified or deleted. This immutable blockchain-based database has the potential to make the air travel industry more efficient. Ultimately FlightChain has the potential to save time, money, improve customer experience, and perhaps even save lives.
Peters adds: “Our FlightChain project has demonstrated that blockchain is a viable technology to provide a single source of truth for data for airlines and airports, specifically for real-time flight information. While there are other technologies available for sharing data, the use of blockchain, and smart contracts, in particular, provides ‘shared control’ and improves the trustworthiness of the data. This research with our partners shows the potential of blockchain for sharing data across the air transport industry”.
Additionally, the Head of Digital Business at IAG Glenn Morgan notes: “Now we’ve proven the technology, we are really excited by the opportunities that blockchain can create in the industry. We will work with IATA and ACI to ensure the best practices are in place”.
It appears FlightChain is just the beginning of blockchain utilization in the air travel industry. In the white paper, it is proposed that many more airlines and airports should be added, as well as more sophisticated smart contracts. It is possible that in the not so distant future all global flight data will be stored immutably in a blockchain-based database, making air travel data more efficient and trustworthy than ever before.
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