Blockchain – A Technological Paradox

block·chain

ˈbläkˌCHān/

noun

a digital ledger in which transactions made in bitcoin or another cryptocurrency are recorded chronologically and publicly.

 

Blockchain has emerged into more conversations last year and has become synonymous with Bitcoin in the mainstream media. Don’t believe us? Watch actor Michael Keaton get asked about bitcoin by the paparazzi as he left a restaurant in December.

We’re seeing conversations about blockchain pick up more speed in 2018. But outside of technology teams and gurus, what does it mean for the bigger picture?

Let’s start with answering a key question. What is blockchain?

Blockchain is not a new technology. Blockchain is a new way of leveraging existing technology. It’s taking a Lego playset and building something new with it. When we look at the speed at which our industry will adopt this new structure, we need to look back.

In 2000, almost twenty years ago, we had similar conversations cross our industry regarding APIs and web services. While blockchain is promising, it’s important to remember that changing core technological infrastructure takes time.

 

What makes blockchain so promising?

The paradox of blockchain is that it makes data more secure while making it more accessible. Usually people trade security for increased access. Think about everything Facebook quiz someone takes. People hand over a large amount of personal information to find out what type of cheese they are. They trade security for information they want. Blockchain flips this process.

With blockchain, data is decentralized and distributed across a structure. Data is secured in each block, and the blocks are connected. Blockchain allows for access to a single general ledger – think of the world’s largest Google sheet – available to all parties at all times. This single, shared general ledger is why blockchain has gained traction in cryptocurrencies, especially Bitcoin.

The shared, single ledger streamlines communications and workflows, driving greater efficiency and accuracy. In practical application, blockchain reduces errors and discrepancies because the source contract is singular and shared.

When we look closely at our industry, there is a clear analogous example with travel bookings. The general ledger becomes the master trip record, with all parties able to see and access the latest information regarding a booking or set of bookings. The unicorn of travel challenges.

The general ledger as a master trip record means access to more data. The entire concept of Big Data shifts. It’s not the act of storing all the data in single data lake and accessing the data that’s the challenge any more – the challenge is understand that the data analysis occurs in the lake as more data is fed into it.

With blockchain, we could access a single set of flight information. We’ve all experienced discrepancies between what the airline is saying about a flight, what the airport says, whatever travel app you might use, and even the agent at the gate. A single source for all flight information, used by all parties, would eliminate this problem. Completely. We would all see the same information. SITA Lab, the research arm of SITA, recently published a white paper on FlightChain, a blockchain process they’re testing to create “a single source of truth for flight data.”

 

Where’s the catch?

The challenge with blockchain is this – how do you control distributed systems when all regulations were created to function in a regulated system?

We have long worked together as an industry to protect data, followed protocols set forth by the Payment Card Industry Security Standards Council and the EU General Data Protection Regulation. These are protocols designed to keep information secure and protect individuals.

We think that there’s an exciting future with blockchain. It’s the first time that a technology can move our industry closer to the single, global traveler PNR.

There is an opportunity, and there needs to be an expectation, that IATA and SITA will work together on blockchain standards across travel from flight information to traveler details in order to create a future where data is both more accessible and more secure.