Could Blockchain Technology Prevent the Next Boeing 737 Max Jet Crash?

Imagine a scenario where we don’t ever have to trust the airlines to police themselves

Recent tragedies have shattered our sense of complacency about the safety of flying on commercial airlines. Enough information has come out about how Boeing handled safety concerns over its 737 Max aircraft, it’s no longer possible to blindly accept that airline companies have our wellbeing as their top priority.

Blockchain — the distributed ledger technology that underpins cryptocurrency — has the unique power to restore trust and integrity to the aviation industry.

Boeing’s software and general safety practices have come under intense scrutiny in the wake of two disastrous Boeing 737 MAX jet crashes over the last year that killed 350 people. The multinational aerospace company’s fleet of new planes was grounded worldwide as an investigation revealed both jets had encountered snags with the plane’s anti-stall software. Boeing took responsibility for the failures, and the CEO alleged that the company knows how to amend the software to prevent future glitches. Shareholders nonetheless accused Boeing of rushing the jet into production, and the company’s stock tumbled.

Blockchain technology, meanwhile, has made incredible progress to date, with some of its most promising if lesser known uses extending well beyond the realm of currency. Zealous early adopters have been hyping the technology for years. But over the last several months, it’s become impossible for the general public to ignore. Major financial institutions are among those realizing blockchain’s potential to streamline operations, cut through red tape, abolish intermediaries, significantly lower transaction fees, increase efficiency and much more. One 2020 presidential hopeful has even made blockchain adoption a key part of his platform.

From food distributors to healthcare and insurance providers — nearly every industry imaginable has begun thinking about how blockchain could overhaul and optimize their business. Longtime skeptics realize it’s not just a flash-in-the-pan. Adopting blockchain may now be an inevitability if they want to remain competitive.

Software Upgrades and Security Audits on the Blockchain

What does this have to do with airplanes? Beyond the technology’s potential in helping streamline customer operations (ticketing, reservations, etc.), an airline company’s network could also code all software upgrades, glitches and other relevant information permanently onto the blockchain. When you consider how many disparate people and parts are involved in getting an airplane in the air, with everything working in tandem, it’s no surprise flight delays are becoming more the rule than the exception.

With every new technology comes associated risk, of course, no matter how much time and money is funneled into its development. With the advent of world-class aviation software comes the risk that it will display an erroneous reading, or that a pilot will misread it. On the crypto front, blockchain technology has proved fertile ground for hackers and other bad actors. We don’t yet know all the risks inherent in blockchain technology, but we can be sure they will emerge with broader implementation. Still, it’s undeniable that blockchain can be a powerful tool for change in the hands of those with a vision for good.

The technology could do more than just ensure appropriate software upgrades and safety audits take place though. It could also bring much-needed transparency to the entire airliner supply chain, from inception to retirement.

Ensuring Accountability From Maintenance to Corporate

In 2015, the journalist James Steele published a Vanity Fair investigation into how airplanes are maintained, and what he found was disturbing. Steele’s article revealed that over the course of the last decade, most big U.S. airlines have outsourced major maintenance work to El Salvador, Mexico and China, where those responsible for conducting critical fixes are unlikely to even be F.A.A. certified. Airplanes sent to these facilities undergo “teardowns” and are then completely re-assembled, often by non-English speaking workers toiling away for obscenely low wages.

Steele found that in a number of cases, planes grounded for basic reassembly failures (like putting a piece back on backwards) were traced back to these facilities.

Steele concluded that we have to trust airlines to better police themselves. But what if we didn’t have to? The reality is that as long as humans are involved, mistakes are guaranteed. Putting maintenance and repair work on a blockchain ledger would increase transparency and accountability, as every minor interaction an airplane undergoes throughout its entire life is recorded in an immutable and trackable way. Likewise, all information and data gathered during a flight could be encoded into the blockchain.

What if every pilot could use distributed ledger technology to know not only where the airplane he’s flying has been that day, but everywhere it’s been for years, as well as details about every fix along the way? This would not only restore trust to the industry, it would also help airlines’ bottom line by heading off shoddy work and shortcuts before the plane ever leaves the hangar. After all, the airlines themselves are responsible for making sure safety and maintenance inspections happen at appropriate intervals. Companies could further tokenize their blockchains, using coins to incentivize anyone who comes into contact with a plane to anonymously report safety concerns.

This is not a distant reality. At least one airline company has already launched a blockchain initiative, and it’s a fair bet that others will begin snapping up blockchain patents in 2019. Will there still be disasters? Almost certainly. But I suspect there will be fewer preventable ones as corporations realize that once something is on the blockchain, it can’t be so easily swept under the rug.

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