Winglets, sharklets help airlines save fuel costs

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Boeing calls the odd-looking upturned wingtips on aircraft “blended winglets,” Airbus calls them “sharklets,” and Southwest Airlines, in ads, simply calls them “little doo-hickeys.”

Whatever the name, these wingtip extensions have become prevalent in recent years and have saved airlines billions of dollars in fuel costs. The newest, and funkiest-looking, version was used on a United Airlines commercial flight for the first time last month. The new design features the upturned wingtip but adds a downward-facing sword and sinister-looking pointed tips, which together make it a “split scimitar winglet.”

Winglets might look cool and represent one of the more radical changes to the appearance of modern jets, but in truth, they’re all business.

While winglets could cost $1 million or more per aircraft to install and add several hundred pounds to an aircraft, they pay for themselves in a few years through fuel savings—about 4 percent savings for the blended winglet and an additional 2 percent savings for the split scimitar.


For airlines, adding the 8-foot-tall blended winglets has become a no-brainer, and adding the split scimitar version also seems to be.

“We have the philosophy: Put them on everything that we can,” said Ron Baur, fleet vice president at Chicago-based United Airlines.

“Anything we can do to save fuel, we’re all over it . . . They’re a huge deal for us,” he added.
Winglets reduce drag and increase lift at the end of the wings, where the physics of flight create small tornadoes. Winglets essentially reduce the size of those whirling air masses and improve the plane’s “gas mileage” by helping jets more efficiently slice through the sky.

Savings of 4 percent and 2 percent might not sound like much, but consider that United uses 4 billion gallons of fuel in a year, or 1 percent of the world’s annual oil supply. And consider that jet fuel prices have soared during the past 15 years, to $3 per gallon today from about 50 cents per gallon.

A single set of scimitar winglets on one plane at United saves about 45,000 gallons of jet fuel in a year, the airline said. For perspective, that’s as many gallons of gasoline as an average car would use in 72 years—more than an average person would use in a lifetime of regular fill-ups.

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