Explained: Why planes have winglets and how they make flights more economical

Twenty years ago they were almost non-existent, but now winglets are a permanent feature on many of the most modern planes in our skies.

If you've ever looked out the window on a flight and wondered why the wing curves up at the end, here's all you need to know.

What is a winglet?

Window Seat View in the Airplane...
Photo credit: Getty Images

Winglets are the curved up part on the tip of an aircraft wing, so it's understandable many people call them 'wingtips.' 

As for what they do, Cirium explains it like this: "Winglets help reduce drag by minimising the size of the vortex where high pressure and low-pressure areas meet at the wing tip. Lower drag results in better fuel efficiency and lower carbon emissions."

In short, winglets reduce drag and increase fuel efficiency. 

On average they cut fuel consumption by four to six percent and also help reduce in-flight noise by up to six percent. Flight data released by Cirium reveals the impact of winglets varies greatly by aircraft type and route.

Do they actually work?

The Cirium data suggests that yes, winglets definitely increase the efficiency of aircraft.

Explained: Why planes have winglets and how they make flights more economical
Photo credit: Cirum

According to the data, on average, Boeing 737-800s benefit the most from winglets. That aircraft model averages a 6.69 percent increase in efficiency and depending on the route receive fuel savings of between 4.6 percent to 10.5 percent. 

Airbus A321s average a 4.8 percent improvement in fuel consumption, but have the widest swing based on routes and individual aircraft, achieving anywhere from 0.2 percent improvement to 10.75 percent.

Where it all began

In 1988, Boeing released the newest in its successful line of 747 aircraft, the 747-400. It was one of the first airliners to use its wingtips to improve fuel efficiency.

British Airways Boeing 747-400 with nickname Queen of the Skies commercial aircraft as seen on final approach with landing gear down landing at New York JFK John F. Kennedy International Airport in USA on 23 January 2020. The jumbo jet wide-body long haul airplane has the registration G-CIVR with 4x RR engines. BA is connecting capital of UK London LHR to New York City via Transatlantic flight. BAW Speedbird is the flag carrier airline of the United Kingdom member of Oneworld aviation alliance.  NY, USA (Photo by Nicolas Economou/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
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In 1997 Boeing's 'Next Generation' 737 aircraft also incorporated winglets. These were much larger than the ones seen on earlier Boeing aircraft and distinguished the 'Next Generation' 737s from their predecessors.

SEATTLE, WA - JANUARY 29: The tail and a next generation winglet of a A Boeing 737 MAX 8 are pictured at Boeing Field after its its first flight on January 29, 2016 in Seattle, Washington. The 737 MAX is the newest version of Boeing's most popular airliner featuring more fuel efficient engines and redesigned wings. (Photo by Stephen Brashear/Getty Images)
Photo credit: Getty Images

By this time, Airbus had included 'sharklets' in its modern aircraft. These achieved essentially the same thing, but had quite a different look to the winglets being used by their rivals at Boeing.

British Airways BAW BA Airbus A321-200 aircraft on final approach, while landing at runway 27R at London Heathrow International Airport LHR EGLL in England, UK during a blue sky summer day. The Airbus A321 airplane has the registration G-EUXJ, has 2x IAE V2533 jet engines and is flying since April 2007.  British Airways BA BAW SHT SHUTTLE is the flag carrier of the United Kingdom, owned by IAG International Airline Group IAG and member of Oneworld aviation alliance. (Photo by Nicolas Economou/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
Photo credit: Getty Images

As research and technology progressed even further, the use of winglets became more and more common.

Air New Zealand Boeing 767-300 ZK-NCI NZ 102 SYD->AKL app AKL
Photo credit: Chris Sutton/Wiki Commons

In 2009, Air New Zealand had winglets attached to its fleet of older Boeing 767s to increase their efficiency while the airline awaited the arrival of new aircraft from the manufacturer.

Explained: Why planes have winglets and how they make flights more economical
Photo credit: Dan Lake

In 2013, Airbus launched the A350, an aircraft which has now become synonymous with winglet design due to the size and prominence of the tips of its wing.