A new generation of barely- audible, fuel-efficient passenger aircraft described as “flying wings” with “virtual windows” could arrive in two decades, engineers from Britain’s Cambridge University said on Friday.

“The noise level we’re looking for would be to take it below the background noise that people experience outside airports … below traffic noise levels,” said Paul Collins, a mechanical engineer with the “Silent Aircraft Initiative.”

It will be 20 years or more before the concept, which looks more like the U.S. military’s B-2 Stealth Bomber than a jumbo jet, could enter service.

But a noise reduction approach that goes beyond the aircraft’s frame and engines means there could be benefits much sooner for those living beneath flight paths.

“We’re not just looking to reduce the noise an aircraft makes but also to change the way it’s flown to produce significant noise savings,” aerospace engineer Tom Reynolds told journalists at the British Association for the Advancement of Science’s annual festival in the Irish capital.

Working with air-traffic controllers, the researchers hope they can begin flight tests with conventional aircraft as early as next year to look at a new, steeper landing approach that would limit the amount of time planes spend at low altitudes.

The scientists hope that, with oil prices at record highs, their new designs will make economic as well as environmental sense.

“It’s really a win-win from an operational point of view because you get less noise and less fuel burn at low altitude,” Reynolds said of the project, backed by aerospace giants such as Boeing, Rolls Royce and British Airways.

By Randy Dotinga

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