They rumbled down the runway in perfect formation as if taking part in an audacious international air show.
Which is exactly what it was, as British Airways and Virgin Atlantic temporarily put aside their rivalry to mark the first day British travellers could once again fly to the United States – complete with a synchronised take-off of two Airbus A350s bound for New York from Heathrow.
Crew waved US flags, passengers were given jam doughnuts decorated with the Stars and Stripes, and Anglo-American bunting was hung throughout the cabins, as the planes took to the skies at 8.30am, giving lift off to one of the busiest and most lucrative aviation corridors in the world.
Virgin Atlantic cabin crew staff at London Heathrow Airport’s T3 ahead of the departure of Virgin Atlantic flight VS3
Mark Palmer, the Daily Mail’s travel editor with British Airways brand ambassadors Elysa Marsden and Eugenia Okwaning before his flight to New York
Performers engage with travellers as they queue to check into Virgin Atlantic and Delta Air Lines flights at Heathrow Airport Terminal 3
Given that it’s more than 600 days since the US travel ban was introduced by former president Donald Trump, there was not a spare seat to be had on either BA flight 001 – the fight number previously reserved for Concorde – or Virgin’s VS3.
One of those seats on the BA plane was occupied by Sean Doyle, the airline’s chairman and chief executive, who assumed the role of a breezy captain as he took to the tannoy and welcomed passengers, hailing the flight as a ‘real moment of celebration’.
Also on the flight with me were Bindiya Patel, 59, and her daughter Bhavna, 31, from Croydon, south London, and both looking forward to meeting the newest member of their family, Kai, who was born last October in Manhattan.
A performer dressed as Elvis Presley engages with travellers as they queue to check into Virgin Atlantic and Delta Air Lines flights at Heathrow Airport Terminal 3
Virgin Atlantic flight VS3 performed a synchronised departure on parallel runways alongside British Airways flight BA001 heading for New York JFK to celebrate the reopening of the transatlantic travel corridor
Hug that says it’s good to see you… at last
It was two years since they last saw each other, but sisters Louise Erebara and Jill Chambers made up for lost time with an emotional reunion at John F Kennedy airport yesterday.
Mrs Erebara, 52, who emigrated to the US from Manchester 34 years ago was waiting with her family for one of the first BA flights to land in New York.
After the sisters embraced (above right) Mrs Chambers, 57, from Darwen, Lancashire, said: ‘I cannot stop crying. None of us can. I find it so hard to believe we’re finally here.’
Mother-of two-Mrs Erebara, who now lives in Connecticut, said: ‘It’s all so overwhelming and emotional… it feels as if we’ve won the lottery.
‘It’s been terrible not knowing when we were going to see them again due to Covid. Today is the day.’
‘I am so excited about seeing my first grandchild that if they had a dance floor on the plane I would be on it right now,’ said Mrs Patel.
‘We wanted to be at the baby shower and then hoped to be at Kai’s first birthday but we couldn’t. We’ve got a placard to wave with Kai’s name on it when we arrive and I dare say my son and his wife will have one with our names, too.’
No-one was pretending that yesterday’s fanfare matched that of October 4, 1958, when two BOAC planes, each carrying around 45 passengers, also took off simultaneously – albeit one from New York, the other from London – in what is regarded as the first commercial transatlantic jet service – but it came close.
‘The importance of this route can not be over-stated,’ Mr Doyle said. ‘And there’s no way we could claim to be “Global Britain” without travel to and from America.
‘I never thought it would take so long for restrictions to be lifted but it’s still a great day for us and our passengers.’
In 2019, 22million people travelled between the US and UK – and transatlantic flights were worth an estimated £8billion a year.
It’s that pot of gold at the end of the runway that has long attracted ambitious new entrants to the relatively short London to New York hop.
Freddie Laker tried and failed in the 1970s, Norwegian Air gave up on the route last year, and Wow Air went bust in 2019.
Louise Erebara, 52, who emigrated to the US from Manchester 34 years ago was waiting with her family (pictured) for one of the first BA flights to land in New York.
After the sisters embraced (above) Jill Chambers, 57, from Darwen, Lancashire, said: ‘I cannot stop crying. None of us can. I find it so hard to believe we’re finally here.’
Today, transatlantic flights account for 70 per cent of Virgin Atlantic’s revenue.
BA intends to put on 183 flights to various US destinations this week, compared with 316 in 2019.
The resumption of passenger flights to and from the US means Thanksgiving and Christmas are back on for many families.
But there are still various obstacles to overcome before you can order that first glass of celebratory chardonnay and start watching as many movies as you can.
In addition to making you fill out an ESTA form and proving you’ve been double-jabbed, the US authorities insist on all passengers showing they have tested negative – via either a PCR or lateral flow test – up to 72 hours before arriving in the country.
Reunited at last: Relatives hug at JFK Terminal 7 on Monday morning after the first flight of unrestricted travelers arrived from London Heathrow, 20 months after the restrictions were put in place
Joy: Families reunite on Monday morning at JFK after 20 months of COVID restrictions. Those who arrived had to prove they were fully vaccinated and have a negative COVID-19 test
Louise Erebara, 52, waits for her sister and brother-in-law from Darwen, near Manchester. She has lived in the US for 34 years but has been separated from her British family throughout the pandemic. Her sister Jill and brother-in-law Mark will stay with her for three-and-a-half weeks. She has not yet flown to the UK to visit them because her young son has not been vaccinated yet. ‘You FaceTime, but it’s not the same,’ she told DailyMail.com on Monday
And those returning to Britain must fill out a dreaded passenger locator form and show they have booked a test on day two – although the cheaper lateral flow is now acceptable.
None of that was on our minds on landing at JFK. We were greeted like an all-conquering sports team, with camera crews forming a tunnel, while airport staff clapped and offered us drinks and huge cookies.
‘Congratulations and how does it feel to be back?’ asked a man from Eyewitness News, who looked like he had just been released from his make-up department.
‘It feels good, thank you,’ I proffered. Not the most original of quotes, I grant you. I could have told him it’s early days.
It’s certainly not business as usual for transatlantic travel – and won’t be for another 18 to 24 months – but with America finally allowing us into the country, the world seems like a bigger, better and more prosperous place.
‘I’M THE HAPPIEST MAN IN AMERICA!’ DUTCH BUSINESSMAN WHO PROPOSED ON MARCH 12 2020 – THE DAY THE BORDERS CLOSED – RETURNS TO SEE HIS FIANCEE AND NEW STEPKIDS
Among those who were the first arrivals at Newark Airport in New Jersey on Monday morning was 45-year-old Dutch entrepreneur Mark Ogertsehnig, who proposed to 40-year-old fiancee Natalia Abrahao on March 12 2020 the day the borders closed, and hasn’t been able to be with her properly ever since.
The pair were photographed embracing at the airport on Monday after he touched down at Newark from Amsterdam on a packed flight full of parents, boyfriends, girlfriends, fiancees and friends, eager to return to their loved ones in the US.
Dutch entrepreneur Mark Ogertsehnig lifts up his fiancee Natalia Abrahao at Newark Airport on Monday morning after flying in from Amsterdam on the first tourist flight. The couple got engaged last March but have not been able to be together full-time. Natalia is originally Brazilian and her green-card application had been submitted when the ban hit, meaning she couldn’t leave the country to visit Mark in Europe or her parents in Brazil
Speaking to DailyMail.com afterwards, Mark revealed how he and Natalia first met 10 years ago as colleagues then reunited after the breakdown of their previous relationships.
They reconciled three years ago but by then, she’d moved from Brazil to New Jersey with her two daughters and was applying for a green card. He was still in the Netherlands.
‘We were back in touch and thought why don’t we go for a drink, but she was living in New York. We met and it sparked again,’ Mark said during an interview on Monday.
The pair committed to a long distance relationship that involved Mark flying over as much as he could.
During a trip to Miami in March 2020, he proposed and she accepted. The day he popped the question was March 12 – the same day President Trump closed the borders and the world went into a meltdown.
Mark was stuck in New Jersey for five months initially, scared to fly to the Netherlands because of COVID but separated from his parents and business.
Mark and Natalia on the night they were engaged, March 12, 2020, the day the borders closed. The pair were in Miami. Natalia had submitted a green card application for her and her two daughters when the borders closed, which meant she couldn’t leave the country to visit Mark in Europe or anywhere else
‘We flew back to New Jersey, Mark was stuck here because all of the flights to the Netherlands weren’t going out. He was stuck here with me for five months. He couldn’t go back, then he finally flew back to the Netherlands.
‘We hoped it wouldn’t last, but we got separated for 8 months,’ Natalia, 40, said.
The pair were then separated until August this year, when he flew over for her 40th birthday, quarantining in Mexico for two weeks along the way – a luxury he says not everyone who has been separated has been able to enjoy.
Natalia couldn’t leave the US to visit him because her green card application was pending. It only came through last month – when Biden announced the restrictions were being lifted after 20 long months.
‘Today, I am one of the happiest men in America, to be with my beautiful fiancee again and our children,’ Mark said.
The couple will now spend a week together in New Jersey before she leaves for a business trip. She will then fly to the Netherlands for Thanksgiving, and he will return to the US for Christmas.
‘That’s the beauty of this, now we have the freedom,’ she said.
‘Her kids are going to see my parents for the first time in real life after two years, it’s crazy,’ Mark added.
He is excited for his parents in the Netherlands to meet his parents, their new step-grandparents. Natalia had not been able to return to Brazil to see her family or go to Europe to see Mark because her green card was pending until last month.