It’s not only about Bitcoin and cryptocurrencies. Linda Fox highlights some potential ways that blockchain may transform business travel.
'Blockchain - hype or reality?' - that is often the question you hear when approaching what is one of the experimental technologies in travel for 2018.
And the answer is, well, a little bit of both. Such was the conclusion of John McQuillan, founder of Dublin-based TravelTechLabs, who presented at an Enterprise Ireland event recently. Hype because of Bitcoin, and other cryptocurrencies often mentioned in the same breath as blockchain, the value of which varies widely on any given day and the amount of venture capital that has been invested - some $2 billion according to McQuillan. And, reality for the potential of blockchain to disrupt, and improve, some industry models, as well as for some of the projects that have already emerged.
BUT WHAT IS IT?
There are many descriptions out there but in its simplest form, blockchain is a database – somewhere to store digital information whether that be contracts, biometric information in the case of business travellers, or transactions of some sort.
In the travel industry, Sabre Labs, in its Emerging Technology in Travel report, has come up with one of the best explanations of blockchain so far. It says:
"At its core, a blockchain is a concept for a particular kind of database. Going back a step further, a database is just a means for storing a collection of digital information, usually in a way it can easily be updated and searched. Information within a database can be any kind of value – birthdates, property records, biometric information, taxes, healthcare records, etc. - anything."
WHY ALL THE HYPE?
As mentioned before, most of the noise around blockchain is to do with the associated Bitcoin and its value. However, there are also stories out there of companies adding blockchain to their names and seeing their share prices sky rocket overnight.
Stepping away from the Wild West image it is attracting for a minute, it's more useful to look at why blockchain has potential, some of the use cases and what they could mean for travel.
The Sabre Labs report is useful again as it lays out the benefits of blockchain such as the difficulty of undoing or changing information held on the blockchain. This is called immutability. The transparency, with anyone able to see a record of transactions, is also seen as a benefit because it helps to cut down fraud. In a public blockchain, the idea is the data is shared around or "distributed" to many places but even with a private blockchain, a number of people can still see the transactions that have taken place. One further benefit that has been highlighted is the bypassing of third parties with blockchain. For example, why do you need a bank, if all transactions are stored in a shared database distributed to many? And, some start-ups argue the same for intermediaries in travel such as the global distribution giants and online travel agents.
McQuillan says: "A mutually trusted virtual computer is what blockchain intends to deliver."
POTENTIAL FOR USE CASES IN TRAVEL
A number of ways the travel industry could employ blockchain have already been identified. Amadeus in its report on the technology highlights loyalty schemes and the potential to make them more user-friendly, identity management, baggage tracking and simplifying payments.
How blockchain can transform the future of travel
1. Payments - Making settlements between different parties, like hotels, travel agents and aggregators, can be an extremely complex process, especially across borders. Blockchain could streamline this process by reducing the intermediaries and the settlement timing while increasing the overall flow transparency.
2. Traveller ID Verification - Today travellers are required to show their ID at multiple stages in the journey, from booking to boarding to checking in at the hotel. Blockchain could make this more secure while simplifying traveller identification at every stage.
3. Baggage Tracking - Another challenge is keeping track of travellers’ luggage as it changes hands from airlines to ground handlers at airports. Blockchain will allow all parties to exchange information even if they are not in the same alliance or related to the same segment improving the accuracy of baggage tracking across the industry.
Source: Amadeus White Paper, Blockchain: harnessing its potential in travel
From a corporate travel standpoint all of these cases have huge appeal because they could remove some of the friction from the airport experience.
REAL LIFE TRIALS IN TRAVEL
Winding Tree is one of the main start-ups to emerge in the travel industry. The company is seeking to disrupt travel distribution by using blockchain. The idea is that the company would introduce its own distribution platform, remove the need for the global distribution companies and offer a cheaper solution for suppliers.
Lufthansa announced last year that its innovation hub would work with Winding Tree to bring blockchain applications to its digital products and services.
Aviation technology specialist SITA has partnered with airlines and airports including British Airways and Miami International Airport to experiment with blockchain. One of the areas it has been trialling is 'smart contracts' whereby blockchain would act as the "single source of truth" for flight data.
This "FlightChain" blockchain would offer all parties shared control of the data in a secure environment.
Amadeus is working with San-Francisco based Loyyal to see how blockchain might be used to make loyalty programmes more user-friendly. Various areas are being explored including how points are switched between schemes as well as realtime access to points and redeeming them. For corporate travellers this could mean instant redemption at airports or for transfers or hotel products and services. A second area that Amadeus is working on is identification where a traveller's "verified data" is stored via a smartphone application and can then be used as their official documentation. Both Amadeus and SITA have highlighted the benefit of blockchain for identity management and how it could be used to speed travellers through airports.
A number of hotel projects are also underway. Nordic Choice is working with Winding Tree on ways to distribute inventory using blockchain.
Payments is one final area being explored and Travel Ledger, set up by Dolphin Dynamics CEO Roberto da Re, is working on using blockchain to create a settlements platform for nonair products but similar to what BSP does for air.
It's wise to read up on blockchain and follow its progress but the reality is it's probably some time before it might really catch on – some say as much as 10 years. There are also a lot of misconceptions about it that people need to be aware of. Some of the main ones, as pointed out by McQuillan, include the fact that it is not anonymous, security is not an "inherent quality" and it's not only about cryptocurrencies. He adds to that other downsides such as its slowness and that it might be expensive.
"One of the things promised was that transactions could be low cost. The cost of transactions is starting to climb. It probably will get cheaper but as of now, it's volatile."
There are public blockchains out there such as the Bitcoin example which is spread across, or hosted, by millions of machines. There are also private blockchain where all the computers storing the information are controlled by one organisation. A final variation is permission blockchain which is a sort of hybrid between public and private where the information is hosted by many but you have to be invited to become involved.