Non-stop flights to Australia from the UK could eventually become a reality under European plans to refuel commercial aircraft in mid-air.

The scheme would involve the introduction of a refuelling aircraft along key long-distance routes that would be capable of topping up as many as seven passenger aircraft.

It would be the first time a system of mid-air refuelling, which is already established for military aircraft, had been adapted for commercial flights, The Times reported

The £2.7 million project, funded by the European Union, has already found that overall fuel consumption may be cut by up to a quarter by allowing aircraft to take off and land with a lighter load.

The technology is being devised as part of the Research for a Cruiser Enabled Air Transport Environment (Recreate) project led by experts from nine European universities and research bodies, including Queen’s University Belfast.

Bart Heesbeen, senior research and development engineer from the National Aerospace Laboratory in Amsterdam, which is leading the programme, said that the “cruiser-feeder” system could revolutionise air travel.

Speaking on the project’s website, he said: “The main benefit is expected to be a reduction in fuel consumption on long-range flights . . . With this experiment we would like to show that it is easy to perform air-to-air refuelling of civil aircraft while maintaining present-day safety levels.

“Based on the feedback we received from the pilots who participated on the phase one experimentation, we can conclude that all pilots believe that it will be possible to operate the aircraft safely during the air-to-air refuelling manoeuvre with a highly automated fuel control system.”

A reduction in consumption of between 11% and 23% by refuelling mid-air rather than taking off with a full load, researchers found.

The figures were based on an aircraft flying 6,000 nautical miles with 250 passengers on board.

Scientists have already used a flight simulator to model the refuelling system.

Converting a large aircraft, such as an Airbus A380, into a tanker would enable them to “refuel six to seven cruisers during a single mission”, it was claimed.

The plans, which have been in development since 2011, have yet to proceed to full in-flight trials.

The Recreate scientists are also working on a system that would involve nuclear-propelled cruisers circling the globe, with passengers, luggage and cargo being delivered mid-air by smaller “feeder aircraft”.