Have you ever been curious about why some planes have special tips on their ends? Usually the kinds you’ll see at a commercial airport are either a sharp vertical piece of wing that goes above and below the wing, called a wingtip fence, or a smoother blended winglet that extends up and slightly behind the wing.
New designs continue to be developed and help reduce drag on aircraft so that fuel efficiency increases. For example, the Boeing 787 has raked wingtips that sweep back rather than bending up. These kinds of improvements boost fuel economy and help airlines that face huge and fluctuating fuel costs as one of their largest expenses. In addition, small gains in efficiency can be paired with removing/replacing seats and adding spare fuel tanks to increase the range of some aircraft for transoceanic routes. In a way, this is one method airlines can perform a little travel hacking of their own.
The Wall Street Journal has an article in today’s paper describing a current patent battle between Airbus Industries and a Seattle-area company. Apparently Aviation Partners owns exclusive patent rights to the blended winglet design, of which Airbus has created its own “Sharklet” variant. It’s not exactly clear why the two can’t play ball, but maybe that’s why I’m not a lawyer.
What I find most interesting is that Airbus is trying to get in on this game, perhaps even planning to include the winglets as a standard feature on the new A320neo. Typically winglets have been an aftermarket modification, which is why you still see many aircraft today without them. Airbus has also been biased toward fenced wingtips whereas Boeing has made greater use of blended winglets.
I think the blended winglets are more aesthetic, but there are probably more important things to airlines than just looking cool. Still, just sayin’…