Thousands of travellers have been able to fly off for long-awaited reunions with family and friends as the United States reopened its borders to UK visitors – where long queues have already formed at Terminal 3.
To celebrate, rival airlines British Airways and Virgin Atlantic operated a synchronised departure from Heathrow Airport on Monday morning – almost two years after the travel ban was introduced.
Their aircraft took off from parallel runways at the West London airport on their way to New York JFK, reports the PA news agency.
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The resumption of flights from the UK to the US was hailed as a “momentous” occasion, and a “day of celebration”.
Robert Courts, under-secretary of state for transport, told the PA news agency: “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.”
Shai Weiss, chief executive of Virgin Atlantic, said the synchronised departure of the Virgin Atlantic and British Airways flights was a “remarkable achievement”.
He added: “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.”
Among those jetting off to the US from Heathrow on Monday was Christian Marcelia, 26, who said he was “excited and a bit nervous” to be flying to New York to visit his girlfriend there for the first time.
He said: “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.
Mr Marcelia said they had seen each other four times over that period, with his girlfriend visiting him in the UK for six weeks at a time, and had done “a lot of FaceTime.”
In early 2020, the coronavirus pandemic led then-president Donald Trump to ban visitors to the US from dozens of countries including the UK, Ireland, the 26 Schengen nations in Europe, China, India and South Africa.
Fully vaccinated travellers from those locations will now be allowed to enter the US.
The lifting of the travel ban is vital for the UK’s long-haul airlines, airports and travel firms, which have been hit hard by the virus crisis.
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.
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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.
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