Nearly 20 months after the US introduced a travel ban, British travellers were allowed into the country on Monday.
At Heathrow airport, the first British Airways and Virgin Atlantic transatlantic flights since March 2020 departed simultaneously from parallel runways, destined for New York JFK airport.
Onboard BA flight 001, there was a sense of anticipation among passengers who were looking forward to being reunited with family and friends, heading on holiday, or taking a business trip.
Bhavna Patel, 59, from south Croydon, accompanied by her daughter Bindiya, 31, was travelling to see her grandson, who was born more than a year ago. The first member of the next generation in her family, she has seen him online but never in person.
“I can’t wait to hold him,” she said onboard the flight. Her son had married an American and eventually settled in Manhattan: “Usually they spend every Christmas with us, but we last saw them in 2019.”
Since then, her grandson, Kai, had come along in October 2020.
“When my brother found out they had opened up to airlines, he was like: you’re coming,” said Bindiya. Since then, they had answered a callout on social media by BA to help reunite families, and been given tickets for the first flight, ready to be reunited at JFK airport.
Jemmi Fajer, 22, an easyJet flight attendant from Lyon, had planned trips to visit friends in New York City three times during the pandemic in the hope that the rules would change, but had to cancel each time. “I’m so excited to be finally going – just to see old friends, stroll around,” she said.
Jean Berrigan, 72, a retired nurse from Suffolk, described herself as a solo traveller – frustrated during the pandemic – and was heading out for a four-night stay in the US, where she used to work. “I was watching and thought as soon as it opens up, I’m going. I’m so pleased it’s opened up for everyone, families reuniting.” A ticket for the first flight cost more but, she said: “I just thought I’m going regardless – I booked the first flight I could.”
While some on the plane were celebrating, it was far from a complete return to normality. Rules have eased but masks onboard are compulsory throughout, apart from at mealtimes, and passengers must still have pre-departure Covid tests and proof of full vaccination. Although BA said corporate travel was returning, few suits or laptops were visible onboard.
Nigel Scorey, 55, was one of the few passengers in the main cabin working on a laptop – and said he had found himself on the first flight by accident, having secured a rare exemption to travel to the US once already during the pandemic as the director of a small supply-chain business, Procure4, based in Leamington Spa.
The US was his only destination for international business travel, he said, as a customer of 30 years with British Airways, but he added: “One of the challenges for companies like BA is that we have proven to ourselves that we don’t have to do this, with Zoom calls. I certainly won’t travel as much as before.”
While he waited at Heathrow to travel to Las Vegas, Peter Short, 75, alluded to the increased administrative tasks placed on those looking to travel when he said: “If I’d known how much trouble it was to get to the states, I wouldn’t have booked it. You have to do all of the tests – and when you come back. I wouldn’t do it.”
Arriving at JFK airport in New York to claps and red, white and blue balloons, passengers coming off the first BA plane said the flight had a party atmosphere.
Charlene Prempeh, arriving in New York for the first time in 18 months, said: “It feels great to be back – like returning to a long-lost love.”
She added that on the flight, the BA chief executive, Sean Doyle, had addressed passengers on sustainability and the airline’s plans to reach net zero emissions. “It felt a bit odd, frankly,” Prempeh added, laughing. “Everything seemed a bit weird on this flight, but in the context of the general madness, it felt fine.”
Katie Mydlarz, waiting outside Terminal 7 after the BA flight, said: “I’m here to see my grandson: this is my first meeting. I’m really excited. It’s been a long time. We’ve FaceTimed but it’s not the same without the cuddles and cooing. I can’t wait to see who he reminds me of.”
Another passenger, Mainda Kiwelu, said she had flown over for a conference. “It’s my first time here and my first flight since Covid so I was a bit apprehensive,” she said.
“I’m excited to be in America. I’ve missed the freedom and missed travelling in general. I got out of practice. It’s a bit of a logistical exercise to get lined up – the apps, the paperwork, the different check-in times – but once that’s all done it’s nice.”
Meanwhile, back at Heathrow, others were waiting to board later transatlantic flights. Jack Olivarius-McAllister, 27, said he was looking forward to seeing his extended family again, many of whom live in the US. “I’m really excited,” he said. “I think it will be really nice to catch up with friends as well. I used to go twice a year. Usually once with family then once again to see friends for myself … [but] I have not been since March 2019.”