Miami Int’l Participates in Blockchain Trial

Author: 
Jodi Richards
Published in: 
May-June
2018

Blockchain is the buzzword in information technology today, and airports such as Miami International (MIA) are paying attention. “It’s our charter as IT executives to look at technology and see how we can insert it into our ecosystem to improve processes,” says Maurice Jenkins, information systems and technology director at MIA. “Some work, some don’t. You never can tell until you see how well you can actually apply it.” 

In an effort to explore possible applications of blockchain within the air transport industry, the technology research division of SITA recently performed a blockchain research project called FlightChain, in which MIA was a participant. Its white paper, Research into the Usability and Practicalities of Blockchain Technology for the Air Transport Industry, details the method, process and lessons learned from the trial. 

While blockchain is not widely understood, it is quite simple, says Kevin O’Sullivan, lead engineer at SITA Lab. He defines blockchain as a distributed ledger of events, digital signatures and hashing that is specifically designed to bring trust to data sets. All data is stored not just in one location, but among all members in a given blockchain network. New information is continuously updated and stored, but data cannot be altered—only added. 

facts&figures

Project: Blockchain Research Project 

Research Team: SITA Lab

Project Timeline: About 90 days

Participants: Heathrow Airport Holdings Ltd; Int’l Airlines Group; Geneva Airport; Miami Int’l Airport 

Objective: Study applicability/efficacy of using blockchain for flight information

Primary Conclusions: The technology is viable for creating & maintaining single set of flight data; more research is needed

Associated White Paper: sita.aero/resources/type/white-papers/flightchain-shared-control-of-data

O’Sullivan compares the current rise of blockchain to the emergence of the Internet in the early 1990s. “There was a lot of excitement, but nobody really understood it,” he recalls. “It took a good decade for it to become established, and then it entirely revolutionized the B-to-C [business-to-consumer] engagement model.” 

Like the World Wide Web in its early days, blockchain is “hugely hyped” and has similar potential to impact the business-to-business engagement model in addition to the business-to-consumer model, he adds. “We just have to see how it pans out and how business and governments adopt it. The big shift, the big mental change people are going to go through, is to figure out how to change business processes to take advantage of it.”

Single Source of Truth

The research project included multiple groups to make it “practical and relevant to the industry,” explains O’Sullivan. SITA coordinated with Heathrow Airport Holdings and International Airlines Group to create a blockchain network infrastructure that crosses organizational boundaries and deploys what he calls a relevant real-world use case: presenting a single version of the truth regarding flight data. Geneva Airport and MIA were added to the project after it was already in process to infuse more airport presence. 

“There’s not much point in doing a blockchain trial if it’s just SITA—you don’t learn or prove a huge amount,” comments O’Sullivan, noting that the technology itself is inherently collaborative. “It’s a well-known problem that, as an industry, we’re not sharing and keeping in-sync that data as well as we should.” 

Flight information is available from various sources such as airlines, departure airports and arrival airports; but the data often varies from source to source. Like his airport colleagues, Jenkins knows that inaccurate flight information can create stress or dissatisfaction for passengers. “Our responsibility is to ensure that we’re providing clear, concise data that allows travelers to make decisions as best as they can to ensure the journey is as comfortable as possible.”

The competitive nature of the air transport industry has historically discouraged participants from divulging operating information by sharing flight data. Creating a “single source of truth” that is easily accessible and could be relied upon by all partners was the goal of the project, says Sherry Stein, senior manager of projects and innovation at SITA Lab. “We were seeking to create that traceability so that the airport on the other end could have a better sense of accuracy in flight status,” she explains. 

Because flight data does not include personally identifiable or commercially sensitive information, blockchain is an appropriate technology choice for this application, Stein adds. Specifically, she notes that blockchain implementations can:

• create a cryptographically immutable transaction ledger that is distributed to all participants in the network;

• provide a mechanism for multiple writers to update a common data set;

• record changes and share them on a ledger so participants can decide whether to accept or ignore the transactions of any participant; and 

• allow multiple organizations to share control of data through the use of a smart contract.

The SITA Lab team conducted research on two types of open source, private permissioned blockchains—Ethereum and Hyperledger Fabric—to compare and contrast how they operate. “There was a lot of collaboration with the airlines and airports to design what it might look like,” Stein says. 

A network of nodes at SITA and in the data centers of the participating airlines and airports was established, and whenever there was a change to flight information, that data was pushed into the network and processed through the smart contract, which is responsible for arbitrating any conflicting updates. Data from London Heathrow International, British Airways, Geneva Airport and MIA was merged and stored on the blockchain. Over the course of the project, more than 2 million flight changes were processed by the smart contract and stored on FlightChain.

Viable, but Not Yet Ready for Prime Time

Although blockchain is still an emerging technology and questions remain on how it could ultimately benefit the industry, Stein says that the recent FlightChain project shows there is, indeed, value in blockchain for airports, airlines and passengers.   

According to O’Sullivan, the study demonstrates that blockchain is a viable and useful technology for sharing and updating flight information data—particularly when there are multiple organizations updating the same data set. “It is a good way to control access and then distribute the data so you have a single source of information,” he summarizes.  

O’Sullivan also acknowledges that relatively speaking, blockchain is still in its infancy. “There’s a lack of maturity around the technology, and I think we’re still in an era where we should just be doing tests and trials, proof-of-concepts and evaluations,” he comments.  

Jenkins adds that blockchain may not necessarily make things “faster, simpler, cheaper,” but could potentially provide the industry with true, empirical data that will “add a level of trust and transparency across a platform that we all can share and be comfortable with.” 

Despite the current unknowns about blockchain, Jenkins advocates exploring its possibilities. Better data accuracy and even financial savings could be the rewards. “Given the result set of this study, we’re actually looking at other potential uses to see how the technology best fits within the industry,” he adds. 

Blockchain is especially advantageous when applied to supply chain management, Stein notes. Other applications could include tracking baggage and cargo. Access to accurate data could help airports with more dynamic and intelligent gate allocation as well, she adds. 

O’Sullivan reports that SITA’s blockchain white paper has garnered a lot of interest from airlines and airports. Even though the FlightChain project is technically closed, the nodes are still operating and the associated data set is growing. SITA will continue researching blockchain applications for the air transport industry, and is exploring the possibility of creating an infrastructure to act as an “industry sandbox” for others interested in performing their own trials and evaluations, O’Sullivan reports.  

Jenkins hopes that the recent study MIA participated in will encourage more industry innovation, because it tested just one application for blockchain. “Any technology out there that could potentially have a benefit or impact to our operational environment is something worthy of evaluation and testing,” he states.

Because blockchain is a collaborative technology, O’Sullivan advises industry members to work in coordination to identify and understand relevant uses for it, and then develop models for appropriate management and use. “The quicker we can get away from our siloed tests of blockchain to work together on testing and trialing and proving it out, the better.”  

Subcategory: 
IT/Communications

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