Thousands of travellers are jetting off for long-awaited reunions with family and friends as the United States reopened its borders to UK visitors – 600 days after a travel ban was imposed.
Rival airlines British Airways and Virgin Atlantic operated a synchronised departure from the west London airport on Monday morning.
The aircraft – both of which were full – took off from parallel runways at 8.51am and will land in New York JFK at around 11am local time.
The chief executive of Virgin Atlantic hailed it as a “day of celebration”.
Speaking to the PA news agency at Heathrow, Shai Weiss said: “It’s been 600 days that the US border has been shut down for UK nationals.
“To see passengers coming in early in the morning, grandparents going to see grandchildren they’ve never met, families reuniting, people going to care for elderly people and businesses reconnecting is really a day of celebration for all of us in the industry and, of course, for Virgin Atlantic.”
He called the transatlantic route “one of the most important in the world”.
“For us at Virgin Atlantic, we say it wouldn’t be Virgin without the Atlantic,” he said.
Mr Weiss’ counterpart at British Airways, Sean Doyle, earlier said the reopening of the US borders was a “moment to celebrate” after “more than 600 days of separation”.
Long queues formed at Heathrow’s Terminal 3 as eager travellers checked in to their flights.
Husband and wife Ben and Becca Akhurst told PA they “can’t believe this is actually happening”, ahead of flying to Orlando, Florida.
The pair, both aged 31 and from Ashford, Kent, said: “This trip has been a long time coming – after five cancellations we finally get to return to Orlando.
“This is going to be an emotional trip and the relief once we had our negative test results a couple of days ago was an amazing feeling. We can’t believe this is actually happening but look forward to savouring every moment and sharing it with our friends and family.”
Christian Marcelia, 26, said he was “excited and a bit nervous” to fly to New York to visit his girlfriend there for the first time.
“My girlfriend lives over there, so we’ve been sort of long distance for two years. I’m going there to meet her family for the first time.”
They have been a couple for nearly two years, he said, spending most of that time on different continents due to pandemic-induced travel restrictions.
Richard Clark was looking forward to seeing his American colleagues, he told PA, before jetting off to San Francisco on business.
The Briton, who works in software for an American company, said it was the first time in two-and-a-half years that he was heading to the US office.
“Having worked at home for so long and being at home for so long for somebody that travels quite a lot historically, a bit apprehensive, I guess, with all the hoops you have to jump through to travel, but otherwise it’s going to be a good change of scenery,” he said.
In early 2020, the coronavirus pandemic led then-president Donald Trump to ban visitors to the US from dozens of countries such as the UK, Ireland, the 26 Schengen nations in Europe, China, India and South Africa.
The lifting of the travel ban is “momentous”, the under-secretary of state for transport Robert Courts told PA.
“This is a massive moment for the aviation sector as we look to build back better from the terrible blow of the coronavirus pandemic.
“It’s about people, fundamentally, it’s about getting families back together…
“That’s particularly important with Thanksgiving and Christmas coming up.
“That’s on top of the massive economic benefit that there is from having the United States and Great Britain – these great friends and allies, countries that have so much in common – back in regular contact with each other again.”
Airlines have ramped up UK-US flight schedules to meet the increased demand for travel.
A total of 3,688 flights are scheduled to operate between the countries this month, according to travel data firm Cirium.
That is up 21% compared with October, but remains 49% down on the pre-pandemic levels of November 2019.
Around 3.8 million British nationals visited the US every year prior to the pandemic, according to the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office.
In addition to being fully vaccinated, foreign travellers arriving by air must also provide proof of either a negative result from a coronavirus test taken no more than three days before travel, or that they have recovered from the virus in the previous three months.
There are limited exemptions for travellers who are not fully vaccinated.
Children are exempt from the vaccination requirement but those aged between two and 17 must take a coronavirus test three to five days after arrival.
Fully vaccinated people travelling from the US to the UK must take a test on or before the second day after their arrival.
Transport Secretary Grant Shapps earlier called it a “significant moment” as transatlantic travel has “long been at the heart of UK aviation”.
The Cabinet minister was due to attend the take-off of the US-bound flights from Heathrow on Monday morning, but had to cancel after falling off his bike at the weekend.
“In and out of hospital after coming off my bike while out this weekend. Big thanks to brilliant NHS staff East and North Hertfordshire NHS Trust QE2 & Lister Hospitals who patched me up yesterday, followed by a minor op on my lip today,” Mr Shapps said on social media on Sunday.