FlightChain

Image via SITA

APEX Insight: FlightChain demonstrates opportunities for shared control of flight data using one of the world’s most promising information-integrity technologies: blockchain.

SITA has unveiled the results of FlightChain, an experiment in managing flight information via blockchain technology that it conducted with British Airways (BA), Heathrow Airport (LHR), International Airlines Group (IAG), Geneva Airport (GVA) and Miami International Airport (MIA). The results were promising; and, like the technology itself, somewhat complicated.

Flight data from LHR, BA, GVA and MIA was merged into a smart contract, a software application that runs on the blockchain. The smart contract processes the information fed to it on each node of the private-permissioned blockchain. The result is undisputedly true information that can’t be altered by any one party accessing the blockchain. Flight data was specifically chosen because it’s both problematic to share across multiple networks while maintaining data integrity and it also contains no personally-identifiable or commercially-sensitive information.

“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,” said SITA CTO Jim Peters. “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.”

Key Lessons From FlightChain Experiment

    • “Decentralized” does not equal “self-managed”. Operational oversight is still required to allow (and sometimes revoke) access and permissions to the blockchain network, manage software and security updates, deploy the smart contracts and so on.
    • Smart contracts have no legal status. While smart contracts can lubricate some of the B2B friction, there are opportunities for industry standards to be encoded within these applications.
    • It’s still early days. Blockchain is far from a mainstream concept and setup remains a complicated proposition. “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,” said Stuart Harwood, Heathrow Automation and Innovation, Heathrow Airport Holdings Ltd.
    • Blockchain is not bulletproof. An enterprise blockchain is only as strong as its weakest link, so the trustworthy output of the smart contract needs to propagate to each node in the blockchain.

“Now we’ve proven the technology, we are really excited by the opportunities that blockchain can create in the industry,” said Glenn Morgan, head of Digital Business Transformation at IAG. “We will work with IATA and ACI to ensure the best practices are in place.” The next steps, according to SITA, are to bring in more airline and airport partners so FlightChain would have a more complete dataset; add some more sophistication to the smart contract; and identify a business model for funding FlightChain’s operation. 

Jordan juggles deadlines across various time zones as he writes about travel, culture, entertainment, and technology.