When is a winglet a sharklet?

A patent dispute between Airbus and a Boeing ally centers around a fuel-saving device
Gustavo Vieira
On a wing and tip
Airbus Press Room

Next time you’re seated in the window seat of an airplane, take a close look at the wings—chances are you will see a fin-like airfoil protruding from the tip. Winglets, as they’re called, have been fitted to airliners since the ’80s, but Airbus has come up with a new name for them: “sharklets.” It’s part of an effort to escape a patent on the increasingly important technology that’s held by a close partner of Airbus’s main rival, Boeing.

To the naked eye, the difference between sharklets and winglets is in name only. Their purpose is to cut down on fuel—between 3.5 to seven per cent—by reducing aerodynamic drag, which they do by literally slashing through the air. The best bang for the buck is in mid- to long-range flights, when cruising speed is sustained for longer periods, consequently compensating for the winglets’ added weight.

In the Airbus versus Boeing battle, modern winglets have become a selling point for customer airlines under pressure to find greater fuel savings. Airbus will install its 2.5-m sharklets on its popular A320s, which are beating its Boeing competitor, the winglet-fitted 737, by the hundreds in firm orders in 2011.

Airbus says that Aviation Partners Inc. (which operates a joint venture firm with Boeing) has demanded Airbus pay royalties for infringing on its latest winglet designs. Airbus filed a complaint in the U.S., arguing the “threats are a significant hindrance” that put it at a competitive disadvantage. Joe Clark, the co-founder and CEO of API, said in a statement his company was surprised by the lawsuit “after working closely with Airbus over the past five years.” He said API has tested winglets on a JetBlue Airways A320 “with the co-operation of Airbus,” adding it will “vigorously protect” its technology, “which is currently saving the world billions of gallons of fuel.”

Whether they’re called sharklets or winglets, those wing tips are no small matter.