Two passenger jets set off from London to New York on Monday in a symbolic resumption of transatlantic travel after the US reopened its borders to vaccinated tourists.
British Airways and Virgin Atlantic staged a simultaneous take-off to mark the restart after more than 18 months of travel restrictions.
The two aircraft left London’s Heathrow Airport from parallel runways, destined for John F. Kennedy Airport in New York on what is usually one of the world’s busiest air corridors. British Airways made $1 billion a year linking the two hubs before the onset of Covid-19.
Essential flights have continued during the pandemic. Fully vaccinated passengers can enter the US from Monday without needing to show that their trip is critical.
The relaxed rules replace the strict travel curbs introduced by former president Donald Trump in March 2020, in the early days of the pandemic.
Two passengers travelling on Monday, Alison and David Henry, were due to go to New York that month but their trip was delayed by nearly two years.
It meant they missed celebrating the 30th birthday of their son, who lives in the US. Since then, Ms Henry has been diagnosed with skin cancer.
“It's been so hard,” she told AFP. “I just wanted to go and be his mum, but we just couldn't get there.” She said her melanoma diagnosis made the coming visit “all the more poignant".
“We didn't know how long it would be — we never envisioned it would be this long before the US would open up,” Mr Henry said.
Husband and wife Ben and Becca Akhurst were set to travel to Walt Disney World in Orlando, Florida, after their trip was cancelled five times.
“This trip has been a long time coming,” they told the PA news agency.
“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.”
BA marked the milestone with a one-off revival of the BA001 call sign that was once reserved for supersonic Concorde trips.
Its chief executive, Sean Doyle, said the restart was a “moment to celebrate” after “more than 600 days of separation".
“Transatlantic connectivity is vital for the UK's economic recovery, which is why we've been calling for the safe reopening of the UK-US travel corridor for such a long time,” he said.
“We must now look forward with optimism, get trade and tourism back on track and allow friends and families to connect once again.”
His counterpart at Virgin Atlantic, Shai Weiss, called the transatlantic route “one of the most important in the world”.
He said: “The US has been our heartland for more than 37 years and we are simply not Virgin without the Atlantic.
“We've been steadily ramping up flying to destinations including Boston, New York, Orlando, Los Angeles and San Francisco, and we can't wait to fly our customers safely to their favourite US cities to reconnect with loved ones and colleagues.”
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.”
Before the pandemic, about 3.8 million British people would typically travel to the US every year.
Airlines have increased 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 per cent compared with October, but remains 49 per cent down on the pre-pandemic levels of November 2019.
As well as being fully vaccinated, foreign travellers arriving by air must provide a negative test taken in the three days before travel.
There are limited exemptions for unvaccinated adults. People crossing the land borders from Canada and Mexico will not need a negative test.
Children are exempt from the vaccination requirement, but those aged between 2 and 17 must take a test three to five days after arrival.