‘A moment of celebration’: UK flights to US take off from Heathrow

British Airways and Virgin Atlantic planes depart more than 600 days after US travel ban began

There were clear skies and a bright new dawn at London Heathrow for its biggest customers, British Airways and Virgin Atlantic, which took off simultaneously in a show of solidarity on Monday morning, flying west with planes fully loaded with passengers as the US finally opened its borders to foreign visitors again.

Setting aside a longstanding rivalry, the planes took to the skies just after 8.50am – more than 600 days since the US travel ban was introduced – in what the bosses of the two airlines described as a “pivotal moment” for the battered industry. Both airlines have reported huge losses and laid off thousands of staff during 20 months of restricted travel.

For both airlines, US markets constitute the biggest part of their business – almost 40% for BA, with six flights scheduled on Monday to New York JFK, while 10 of 21 Virgin flights taking off are for America.

Speaking before the flight, the Virgin chief executive, Shai Weiss, described it as “a tipping point”.

Vaccinated US visitors have been able to travel to Britain since the summer, when the UK lifted quarantine restrictions, but airlines are increasing their schedules and there are full planes this week for the first time.

To underline the significance for anyone who missed it, the BA check-in at Heathrow Terminal 5, the cabins and even the air bridge from the gate to the plane were festooned with American flags.

BA and Virgin used their most fuel-efficient models, A350s, after both airlines retired their famous 747 jumbos early as a cost-saving measure during the pandemic. BA flight 001 took off on the northern runway, with Virgin flight VS3 rising into the air exactly in parallel.

Virgin Atlantic chief executive Shai Weiss (left) and BA chief executive Sean Doyle at Heathrow airport
Virgin Atlantic chief executive Shai Weiss (left) and BA chief executive Sean Doyle at Heathrow airport. Photograph: Doug Peters/PA

The BA chief executive, Sean Doyle, told passengers over the tannoy: “This is a real moment of celebration. I know how much today means to you – some have not seen your loved ones for two years, others have not been able to do business.”

He also told them that flight BA001 was powered by a blend of 35% sustainable aviation fuel [SAF] – the largest mix used yet on a commercial flight, while remaining emissions would be offset, via wind and solar power projects. “In the years ahead,” Doyle said, “we envisage all our long-haul flights will be powered by SAFs.”

It was a reminder that aviation still has plenty of challenges ahead. For now, though, some optimism has returned.

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Friends and family were some of the first to book to fill planes this week, the airlines said, with planes across Virgin’s US departures 98%-full until Wednesday. Doyle said there had been significant bookings too from corporate customers and small businesses, dispelling the idea that business travel was dead. Bankers in particular had booked to fly back, boosting the revenues from premium cabins.

But holidaymakers have also filled the front ends, according to the BA Holidays managing director, Claire Bentley: “People are upgrading, treating themselves.”

City breaks had generally not been sought after during the pandemic, for those who did try to get away despite the testing requirements and travel restrictions, she said. The US east coast’s biggest city has long been its best seller, though, and is coming back fast: “New York is in a category of its own.”


Gwyn Topham Transport correspondent

The GuardianTramp

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