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Lufthansa replicates sharkskin to boost fuel efficiency of cargo jets

Biomimicry, purchase of 10 Airbus A350s and Boeing 787s help Lufthansa achieve sustainability goals

Lufthansa Cargo will use new "sharkskin" technology to improve the aerodynamics of its freighters. (Computer Generated Image: Lufthansa Group)

(Updated 3:05 ET with news of Lufthansa aircraft orders)

Lufthansa Cargo next year will cover its fleet of Boeing 777 freighters with a high-tech coating that mimics the structure of a shark’s skin to reduce aerodynamic drag and fuel consumption, the company said Monday. Lufthansa Airlines also announced deals with Airbus and Boeing (NYSE: BA) to purchase more modern widebody jets for international routes.

The low-friction film consists of riblets measuring about 50 micrometers that imitate the properties of sharkskin and allow air to flow more smoothly over the aircraft during flight. Sister company Lufthansa Technik developed the new AeroShark technology with German chemical manufacturer BASF to meet aviation needs and estimates it can reduce drag more than 1%. 

Lufthansa said the special coating on its 10 777s in 2022 will provide annual savings of about 3,700 tons of jet fuel and nearly 11,700 tons of carbon dioxide emissions — the equivalent of 48 individual freighter flights from Frankfurt, Germany, to Shanghai. Lufthansa Cargo currently operates nine 777s, but is adding another one later this year.

Aircraft surfaces are exposed to UV radiation, temperature and pressure fluctuations at high altitudes that can alter smoothness. The BASF coating is designed to be weather resistant and simple to apply.

The technology is one of several steps Lufthansa’s cargo division is taking to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050.

“We are proud that we will now be able to operate our entire freighter fleet even more efficiently in the future thanks to sharkskin technology and reduce the carbon footprint of our modern fleet further,” said CEO Dorothea von Boxberg in a statement. 

Lufthansa Technik, the engineering services and maintenance subsidiary of Deutsche Lufthansa AG (DXE: LHA), is responsible for the material specification, obtaining approval from aviation authorities and applying the technology during regular maintenance intervals. The company said it will obtain a Supplemental Type Certificate, which is required when an aeronautical product is modified from its original design, from the European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA). 

The aviation industry has been researching the use of sharkskin for aircraft for many years. In late 2019, Lufthansa Technik and BASF fitted almost the entire lower half of a Boeing 747-400 fuselage with 500 square meters of jointly developed sharkskin surface and had the modification certified by EASA. The aircraft subsequently validated the savings potential of the technology on long-haul services during 1,500 hours of flight, according to BASF.            

The sharkskin modification reduced emissions on the flights by about 0.8%, but BASF said the savings for the 777 freighters are estimated to be higher because film will be applied to an even greater area because of the absence of windows. 

Lufthansa Technik and BASF said they will continue to develop the technology to include additional aircraft types and even larger surfaces to help airlines meet greenhouse gas targets. Initial models show that the use of sharkskin technology could eventually reduce CO2 emissions by as much as 3%. 

Carbon-neutral flights

In early April, Lufthansa Cargo began regularly scheduled carbon-neutral flights between Frankfurt and Shanghai. The flights are operated under contract to logistics provider DB Schenker, which is paying to cover the cost of using sustainable aviation fuel. The clean-burning fuel, which is made from some type of biomass waste, will save about 174 metric tons of conventional kerosene from being burned. When burned in the engine, the same amount of carbon dioxide is released that was previously removed from the atmosphere during the original growth of the plants.

For technical and legal reasons it is not possible to fuel an aircraft entirely with biofuel, so it is blended with conventional jet fuel in the airport refueling system and consumed proportionally by all subsequently refuelled aircraft in the program, according to Lufthansa. 

In addition, greenhouse gases produced during the manufacture and transport of the fuel are fully offset by sustainable offsets, such as contributing to reforestation projects. 

Lufthansa’s cargo division and DB Schenker in November jointly committed to reduce their carbon footprint in aviation by promoting sustainable aviation fuels, sharing best practices for protecting the climate and encouraging government and industry to work together to expand production and infrastructure for alternative power. As part of their environmental initiative, they plan to regularly offer greenhouse gas-neutral airfreight as a product for shippers.

Fleet Modernization

Meawhile, Lufthansa Group announced Monday it is buying 10 long-haul aircraft – five Airbus A350-900s and five Boeing 787-9s – to replace older aircraft in Lufthansa Airlines’ fleet. The aircraft will also be heavily utilized for transporting cargo.

Lufthansa said it was able to secure favorable prices with aircraft production at very low levels because of the coronavirus crisis and airlines retrenching for financial survival. The five 787s were already built for other airlines that canceled the orders. The first 787s are scheduled to begin flying this winter, with the others to follow in the first half of 2022. The order brings the total number of firm orders for Boeing 787-9s and Boeing 777-9s to 45 aircraft.

The five A350-900s will be delivered in 2027 and 2028. Lufthansa previously ordered 40 of the aircraft.

“Even in these challenging times, we are continuing to invest in a more modern, more efficient and a lower emission Lufthansa Group fleet. At the same time, we are pushing ahead with the modernization of our long-haul fleet even faster than planned prior to the coronavirus pandemic due to anticyclical opportunities. The new aircraft are the most modern of their kind. We want to further expand our global leadership role, among other things, with cutting-edge premium products and a state-of-the-art fleet – especially because we have a responsibility to the environment,” said Lufthansa Group CEO Carsten Spohr.

On average, the new long-haul aircraft will only consume approximately 2.5 liters of kerosene per passenger and 100 kilometers flown. This is about 30% less than many current and earlier models and will help to reduce the Group’s carbon footprint, Lufthansa said.

The investments fit within the parameters of the $9 billion financial bailout Lufthansa received from the German government last year.

The 787-9 and A350-900 aircraft will essentially replace the four-engine A340 long-haul aircraft as part of a planned fleet reduction. Plans call for reducing the number of four-engine aircraft in the Lufthansa Group long-haul fleet to less than 15% by the middle of this decade; before the crisis, the share was about 50%. The new, fuel-efficient aircraft will reduce operating costs by around 15% compared with the models they replace, Lufthansa said.

The fleet renewal includes narrow-body planes. This year, Lufthansa will take delivery of a new, fuel-efficient Airbus A320 family aircraft for short- and medium-haul routes on average every month. Delivery of a further 107 Airbus A320 variants is planned until 2027.

Click here for more FreightWaves/American Shipper stories by Eric Kulisch.


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Eric Kulisch

Eric is the Supply Chain and Air Cargo Editor at FreightWaves. An award-winning business journalist with extensive experience covering the logistics sector, Eric spent nearly two years as the Washington, D.C., correspondent for Automotive News, where he focused on regulatory and policy issues surrounding autonomous vehicles, mobility, fuel economy and safety. He has won two regional Gold Medals and a Silver Medal from the American Society of Business Publication Editors for government and trade coverage, and news analysis. He was voted best for feature writing and commentary in the Trade/Newsletter category by the D.C. Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. He won Environmental Journalist of the Year from the Seahorse Freight Association in 2014 and was the group's 2013 Supply Chain Journalist of the Year. In December 2022, Eric was voted runner up for Air Cargo Journalist by the Seahorse Freight Association. As associate editor at American Shipper Magazine for more than a decade, he wrote about trade, freight transportation and supply chains. He has appeared on Marketplace, ABC News and National Public Radio to talk about logistics issues in the news. Eric is based in Vancouver, Washington. He can be reached for comments and tips at [email protected]