Guest column: how blockchain can revolutionise the travel manager role

Blockchain has a lot to offer the business travel industry. Before it can be used to its full potential, however, the industry must make some changes of its own, says Allen Allison, chief information security officer at American Express Global Business Travel

Across the business spectrum, transactions and interactions are carried out by people – even if done through the proxy of tech tools and channels. Individuals are recognised by their identities. Personal identification, therefore, drives every business and social interaction. But in today’s digital world, an identity isn’t just a name or user ID; it’s a sum of many parts working together to define an individual.

In the world of business travel, there is a considerable amount of unacknowledged risk associated with Personal Name Records (PNRs). Many travellers are unaware of how much data is attached to their PNR codes and how much personal information can be accessed if someone gets hold of them. For example, if a traveller leaves their boarding pass behind them on the plane, the data printed on it could be used to determine the traveller’s itinerary and identity. Even more seriously, a hacker could log into their frequent flyer account and find out passport information, addresses and other confidential material.

Blockchain has the potential to resolve a lot of the insecurity associated with traditional PNR systems, since it creates an unbroken, encrypted thread of data ledgers that can only be accessed by parties in possession of unique codes. Travel managers (TMs) can therefore fulfil their duty of care obligations with greater confidence. In addition, travel management companies (TMCs) will be better placed to support TMs as they overcome unexpected issues and negotiate multiple levels of transport, payment, accommodation and security infrastructure.

Any new technology that helps industries simplify their identification processes and enhance security will sooner or later become essential. Blockchain is one such technology that has the potential to revolutionise the way TMs and TMCs understand and use traveller identity.

New technology, new identity
While cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin are the most high-profile examples of blockchain at work, they are by no means the limit to what the technology has to offer. Blockchain works by creating a series of digital ledgers, each storing a different piece of information. Each ledger can only be accessed using codes shared by agreed users, who can then view the data but are unable to modify it. This creates an un-corruptible record of an ongoing transaction. If suppliers, TMs and TMCs harness blockchain, they can begin to trace the identity of travellers at different points on their trip without compromising data security.

Take passports as an example. Rather than travellers showing their passports at multiple stages of a journey, traveller information stored and transmitted using blockchain technology could be shared automatically and in advance to speed up the process. In subsequent stages, it could be accessed by the traveller’s TM or TMC using secure codes and access controls to ensure consistent authentication for the whole itinerary.

Similarly, if a TM is supported by a TMC using blockchain, travellers can be immediately recognised over the phone or online. Issue resolution is more efficient when TMCs have access to encrypted data confirming their authentication. This would reduce barriers between TMCs and travellers, meaning any issues could be potentially resolved quicker than previously possible through traditional methods of identification. Additionally, a more robust authentication system increases protections against fraud and decreases the risk of identity theft, meaning both travellers and TMs can feel more secure that the information they’re sharing is being used for its intended purpose.

New technologies should never be adopted if they unjustifiably compromise the safety, privacy or confidentiality of the traveller and the travel buyer. If blockchain can improve efficiency and safety simultaneously, then the travel industry should look to take the necessary steps to incorporate it.

Real change is yet to come
It will only be possible to reap the full benefits of blockchain once the entire infrastructure of the travel industry has caught up. Numerous agents that help frame an itinerary will have to incorporate blockchain authentication technologies into their security procedures before travellers can use it on a regular basis.

It is unclear at this stage just how quickly the travel industry will adopt blockchain, but steps are being taken. Though still in its infancy, bloc­kchain for corporate travel will surely continue to grow in parallel with its wider use in the business world. Continued progress promises a more secure and efficient identification process for travellers, TMs and TMCs in the near future.

Allen Allison is the chief information security officer for American Express Global Business Travel. He has more than 20 years of cyber security experience developing and implementing information security programmes, including security policies, implementation of security controls and the architecture standards of data classification and handling procedures.

Prior to joining GBT, Allen worked for five years at a global IT services company leading global security operations. Prior to that, he was the chief security officer for an industry-leading managed hosting and cloud services provider.  In his career, Allen has achieved certifications including CCIE, CCSP and CISSP, among others. He holds a degree from the University of California, Irvine, where he majored in economics and in electrical and computer engineering.

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