US travel ban lifted - live: First London-New York flights land at JFK as hotel bookings up 63 per cent

·20 min read

After almost 20 months, the US has finally reopened to tourists.

The unprecedented travel ban, implemented in March 2020 in response to the pandemic, saw travellers from the UK, EU and various other countries worldwide allowed into the States for only a handful of “essential reasons”.

From 8 November, entry restrictions have been lifted for all fully vaccinated arrivals.

In celebration, British Airways and Virgin Atlantic staged an historic simultaneous take-off from London Heathrow’s two runways this morning.

Virgin’s VS3 was the first to land at New York’s JFK Airport, touching down at 10.51 AM local time, while British Airways’s BA001 landed a few minutes later at 11.00 AM.

“This really feels like proper travel is back – and back to something like normality,” said Mark Jones, The Independent’s correspondent who is reporting from the very first BA flight out to the US. “Except I’m FAR more excited than I’d normally be for a business trip.”

Follow all the latest updates below.

Read More

Back to the US: After travel ban lifts, how new rules for British visitors work

When will UK-US travel reopen?

British Airways and Virgin celebrate US reopening with first ever dual take off from Heathrow to New York

Key points

  • US lifts travel ban for vaccinated tourists

  • BA and Virgin stage dual take-off from Heathrow

  • Hotel bookings soar as border reopens after 20 months

‘There’s the Chrysler Building'

18:20 , Mark Jones

We’ve made it into Manhattan on a coach.

As ever, slightly gobsmacked by how rickety the outskirts of the city are.

But then we’re through the Midtown Tunnel, there’s the first brownstone, there’s the Chrysler building and there’s that distinctly New York kind of preoccupied rushing about. It feels weirdly like home. But half the places I once knew have shut.

I check into the Conrad Hilton downtown, where the celebrations continue.

“The media is excited, the people care that [British travellers] are coming back,” says Kara Freedman, marketing manager of tourist board NYC & Co.

“I never appreciated the sound of foreign voices before!”

Mark at JFK Airport (Mark Jones)
Mark at JFK Airport (Mark Jones)

Watching BA and Virgin fly in tandem ‘really something’ - Kuoni MD

18:10 , Lucy Thackray

Derek Jones, Managing Director of tour operator Kuoni, has commented on today’s celebration flights to mark the reopening of the US to fully vaccinated travellers.

“Anyone who’s worked in UK travel over recent decades will agree that watching @British_Airways and @VirginAtlantic fly side by side from Heathrow to New York really is something,” tweeted Jones.

“Symbolic of a sector that has come together through the Covid crisis.”

Virgin video captures first flight back to the US

17:53 , Lucy Thackray

The Virgin Atlantic team has captured some highlights from its historic flight back to the US after the country lifted its 20-month travel ban on much of the world.

Flight VS3 took off from London Heathrow at 08.50 AM and landed at New York’s JFK airport at 10.51 AM local time.

Watch the video here:

BA to resume flights to 17 US cities initially

17:19 , Mark Jones

BA CEOs alternate between alpha-male mavericks and calm, managerial types.

Sean Doyle is the latter, promising his own brand of leadership - calm but firm, on the evidence of my chat with him mid-flight earlier today.

The Cork boy says he is looking forward to the buzz of New York for a couple of days.

He doesn’t say the route is less important to his prospects of success than his predecessors - no one sensible would.

But the fact is, in the 2010s the airline successfully expanded its USA network. All its eggs are no longer in the New York and Florida baskets.

They will resume flights to to 17 cities stateside from now and plan to climb back up to 30 in total by summer 2023.

“The airline has diversified into the east as well as the west,” Doyle tells me, “but as for the rest of the British economy, the US is crucial.”

Sean Doyle, BA CEO (Sean Doyle, BA CEO)
Sean Doyle, BA CEO (Sean Doyle, BA CEO)

Masked JFK staff cheer and wave flags as Brits arrive

17:08 , Lucy Thackray

A welcome party of JFK airport staff greeted both Virgin and BA’s first flights to touch down in New York City this morning.

Abra Dunsby-Sircana of TTG Media tweeted “What a welcome to the US”.

At the airport, US press teams such as USA Today’s were on the ground ready to greet the first British arrivals and mark the occasion.

Staff cheered and shouted “Welcome back,” with one joking, “What kept you?”

Our correspondent on the ground (and in the sky) Mark Jones, captured this footage:

The view from the landing

16:42 , Mark Jones

What happens when you’re on the wrong side of the aircraft when you land in New York...

The Atlantic Ocean viewed during landing (Mark Jones)
The Atlantic Ocean viewed during landing (Mark Jones)

A warm welcome at JFK airport for the first British tourists

16:37 , Mark Jones

It’s a clear, bright day here at JFK and man, it feels good to be here - regardless of whether Virgin got there a few minutes earlier.

Immigration and arrival are a breeze, apart from the touch-sensitive fingerprint machine - which wasn’t.

The immigration man took my fingers rather tenderly and pressed them onto the glass.

‘It’s not a race’ - or is it?

16:28 , Mark Jones

I hear the BA flight is running six minutes behind, writes Mark Jones from flight BA001.

‘It’s not a race,’ says a BA crew member.

It is so a race. I feel like the losing crew in the Oxford-Cambridge Boat Race. Faster!

Then, finally, a glimpse of New York… the smudge on the horizon indicates “increased economic activity”.

A glimpse of land from BA001 (Mark Jones)
A glimpse of land from BA001 (Mark Jones)

BA and Virgin’s first US flights touch down in New York

16:10 , Helen Coffey

After this morning’s momentous dual take-off from London Heathrow, British Airways and Virgin Atlantic’s first US-bound flights following the easing of travel restrictions for UK travellers have both touched down safely at New York’s JFK.

It is the first time in nearly 20 months that tourists from the UK have been able to enter the US.

“Wheels on the ground at 15:51 in New York after great flight on @VirginAtlantic - but did we beat British Airways across the pond?” tweeted Lisa Minot, travel editor at The Sun.

The answer is yes, according to tracking site FlightRadar24; the Virgin flight landed approximately nine minutes before BA’s service.

Virgin flight on track to touch down in NYC in 10 minutes

15:36 , Helen Coffey

Virgin Atlantic’s flight VS3 flight from Heathrow-JFK is on track to touch down in New York in 10 minutes - the airline’s first passenger flight to land in the US since the ban on leisure travel was lifted today.

It will beat British Airways, whose BA001 flight took off simultaneously from London Heathrow this morning, but is scheduled to land 13 minutes later, at 10.57am, according to FlightRadar24.

US number one dream holiday destination for Brits in 2022

14:49 , Helen Coffey

The US came out on top as the British public’s “dream holiday” for 2022, according to new research.

The study of 2,000 British adults, commissioned by Forbes Advisor, asked Brits about their travel plans for the next 12-18 months, including their dream destinations, likely expenditure, and how they plan to fund their trip.

The survey focused on long-haul destinations, as opposed to more common European getaways, as two thirds (67 per cent) of respondents stated they considered a “once in a lifetime” holiday as a medium or long-haul journey.

The 10 top dream holiday destinations are:

  1. USA: 19.8%

  2. The Caribbean (eg Barbados): 9.2%

  3. Canada: 8.3%

  4. Dubai: 6%

  5. Maldives: 5.2%

  6. Thailand: 5%

  7. Japan: 4.7%

  8. Hong Kong: 4.2%

  9. China: 4.1%

  10. South America (eg Brazil): 3.9%

Virgin Atlantic US flight currently on track to beat BA to New York

13:53 , Helen Coffey

Virgin Atlantic flight VS3 - the airline’s first London-NYC flight since the travel ban lifted in the US - is on track to touch down before the equivalent British Airways service.

The two flights took off in tandem from Heathrow this morning.

VS3 is currently off the coast of Canada, having flown over Newfoundland, with a current estimated arrival time into JFK airport of 10.47am, according to FlightRadar24.

BA001 is estimated to land just six minutes later at 10.53am.

Flight VS3 (FlightRadar24)
Flight VS3 (FlightRadar24)

Delta saw 450% jump in flight bookings after US reopening announcement

13:24 , Lucy Thackray

Delta Air Lines has announced that it saw a 450 per cent increase in flight bookings in the six weeks after the White House announced that the US would be reopening to fully vaccinated visitors.

Today’s Delta flights are expected to operate at full capacity, with 205 transatlantic flights total scheduled for November.

The carrier is also increasing flights on European routes this winter, including London to Boston, Detroit and New York JFK; Amsterdam to Boston; Dublin to New York JFK; Frankfurt to New York JFK; and Munich-Atlanta.

“I applaud the administration’s decision to welcome foreign nationals back to the United States beginning 8 November,” said Delta’s CEO Ed Bastian of the reopening.

“International air travel is essential to global economic recovery and the United States’ tourism industry. Delta people are excited to play our part in reuniting families for the holidays and reconnecting the world after more than 19 months apart.”

A Delta plane taxis on the tarmac (EPA)
A Delta plane taxis on the tarmac (EPA)

Why I can’t wait for an autumn reunion with NYC

12:58 , Lucy Thackray

With the US now reopened to fully vaccinated tourists, I’ll be one of the first to book my return to one of my favourite cities, New York.

I usually visit NYC about once a year, often in late spring when blossom fills Central Park and unexpected heatwaves prompt al fresco dining - or in autumn, when the fall foliage makes the city even more charming and exploring on foot is still a joy.

But this time I’ll be back as soon as there’s an opening in my diary, for my first trip in over two years.

Read the full story:

Why I can’t wait for an autumn reunion with my city soulmate, New York

Onboard BA’s A350

12:23 , Mark Jones

I’ve flown to New York on a jumbo, Concorde and even a 707. But the A350 I’m on now is best of the lot.

Funny when you remember all the fuss about Dreamliners and A380s… yet this smaller, humbler workhorse is taking over the flight paths.

Demand for Florida holidays stronger than ever, says BA

12:13 , Mark Jones

Claire Bentley, managing director of BA Holidays, says city break bookings have suffered during Covid - people want the safety and security of resorts, and they want to get more holiday to compensate for the added hassle that comes in the form of testing and paperwork.

US fly-drives have struggled - but Florida demand is stronger than ever (all those long-promised Disney World trips…).

The exception to the cities rule is, unsurprisingly, New York. Interest has been strong even when you couldn’t go. It’s not like any other city, she reckons.

Best deal? BA is offering £479 for three nights including hotel. Claire’s fave NYC experience? The circle line (we agree that just because it’s touristy, doesn’t mean it’s not great).

British Airways aims to dominate US market

11:47 , Mark Jones

Onboard the first London-New York British Airways flight following the lifting of the US travel ban, Sean Doyle, BA’s CEO, is confident that the airline will dominate transatlantic travel.

He says BA will be the number one European carrier to the US before the end of 2021.

Brits to spend an estimated £176m on US flights

11:15 , Helen Coffey

Brits are expected to spend an estimated £176m on US flights over the next three months, according to personal finance comparison site finder.com.

Jon Ostler, CEO at finder.com, said: “UK travellers will cheer on the recent end of the US travel ban after nearly two years since the US government enforced the ban internationally during the pandemic.

“With many expected to reunite with family and friends across the pond, our latest research has shown that out of the 6.3 million Brits who plan to travel in the next three months (November to January), an estimated 12 per cent are expected to spend on average £176m on flights before January.

“I’m in no doubt that we will see a rise in UK travellers booking their holidays and jetting off to the US in no time.”

Passengers applaud on BA flight as it synchronises takes off with Virgin

10:52 , Mark Jones

The BA and Virgin flights coordinated their take-offs from Heathrow to New York to the accompaniment of cheers and whoops from passengers onboard.

Here’s the moment the two aircraft took off side by side from the airport’s two runways:

US hotel bookings up 63 per cent

10:48 , Helen Coffey

With the US reopening borders to the UK and Europe today, Hilton has already seen a 63 per cent surge in reservations.

Simon Vincent, EVP & President, Europe, Middle East and Africa, Hilton said: “Since news broke of the planned reopening of US borders, we’ve seen a surge of interest from European and UK guests planning to visit our US hotels.

“Hilton search data reveals the extent of that demand, with a 63 per cent increase in digital reservations in the five weeks following the news of plans to ease restrictions. We’ve seen similar trends across Europe, with inbound demand from US guests growing as travel rules have lifted.

“The reopening of the US border signals the next important phase of recovery for the industry, and we look forward to welcoming a new dawn of international travel.”

According to Hilton data, the top five US cities by search and reservation are:

  1. New York

  2. LA

  3. Chicago

  4. Washington D.C.

  5. Boston

What are the US testing rules?

10:19 , Simon Calder

The rules and recommendations on tests for travel to the US have been widely misinterpreted. This is the correct picture.

Fully vaccinated? Take a lateral flow test on the day of travel or one of the preceding three days. For example, with a flight at 3pm on Saturday you could take a test any time from Wednesday to Friday, or on Saturday itself.

The US Centers for Disease Control recommends you take a second test between three and five days after arrival, but this is not mandatory.

Unvaccinated, aged two-17 and travelling with a vaccinated parent? Exactly the same as for vaccinated adults, except that the post-arrival test is required, not merely recommended.

More in our comprehensive explainer on the new travel rules.

Back to the US: After travel ban lifts, how new rules for British visitors work

First UK-Orlando flights set off

09:53 , Simon Calder

Two flights will depart from the UK to Orlando after a gap of 20 months. Both the trips to Florida’s theme-park capital are operated by Virgin Atlantic: the first from Manchester, the second from Heathrow. Both are fully booked.

Among the passengers on the Manchester-Orlando plane are Teresa and Marcus Gronqvist from Leeds.

“It’s been the most stressful booking,” Teresa told The Independent.

“We booked back in January and just happened to pick the very day the US opened up to the Brits!”

The couple faced a stressful start to their journey when the testing laboratory failed to provide the promised three-hour PCR result. Instead, they took swift lateral flow tests and made the flight.

British Airways and Virgin Atlantic flights take-off in tandem

09:47 , Mark Jones

And we’re off!

There’s a festive atmosphere on board as the BA people work the cabin - and some relief that coordinated take-off with Virgin worked.

Interestingly, Sean Doyle, BA CEO, takes the microphone on the BA001 flight to New York. Instead of trumpeting the resumption of US flights he chooses to make a COP-friendly speech about the airline’s sustainability policies.

This is the first BA long haul flight using 35 per cent SAF (Sustainable Aviation Fuel).

A BA person tells me Virgin has only managed 5 per cent - unless they are making a similar announcement on the other flight.

Signs it’s not quite peace in our time between the two great rivals yet…

 (Mark Jones)
(Mark Jones)

Interest in US travel bookings soars

09:39 , Helen Coffey

As the US reopens to vaccinated tourists, interest in booking trips there has surged according to data from hotel site trivago.

Since the announcement on 20 September that the US would reopen its borders:

  • Overall traffic from trivago’s European sites to accommodation in the US is 2.7 times higher than pre-announcement

  • Traffic to US bookings is 5.6x higher in Switzerland, 5x higher in Austria, 4x higher in Germany and 2.2x higher in the UK than before the announcement

  • Comparing w/c 25 October to w/c 1 November, the biggest spikes in traffic to the US have come from Italy (around 74 per cent increase) and Greece (around 62 per cent increase).

Virgin Atlantic flight delayed

09:03 , Helen Coffey

The momentous dual take-off of BA and Virgin’s first London-New York flights since the US travel ban lifted could be held up.

Times transport correspondent Ben Clatworthy reported: “British Airways and Virgin are performing a dual take off at Heathrow this morning to celebrate the return to the US… except the Virgin flight is delayed boarding.”

Ready for take-off

08:55 , Helen Coffey

The BA and Virgin flights are preparing for their historic dual take-off at Heathrow.

Mark Jones, our (soon to be) eye in the sky, is “currently looking at an empty runway and a complimentary doughnut”.

What a time to be alive.

Champagne selfies at Heathrow

08:53 , Mark Jones

The fun begins with BA’s Hattingley champagne. It’s early morning and I’m not sure if I should be drinking on the job. But what the hell. We get US-inspired breakfast snacks and the chance to reflect on what a big deal this is for the airlines.

The London-New York route has been the underpinning of BA’s profits for decades – especially those regular flyers up the front. This trip, organised by BA’s Holidays arm, will be all about tempting British leisure travellers back. But make no mistake: BA CEO Sean Doyle knows that it’s the business travellers he needs to win round if the airline is to return to pre-pandemic profitability.

 (Mark Jones)
(Mark Jones)

What it’s like to be the first British tourist to cross Canada-US border in 20 months

08:45 , Simon Calder

In the tourist town Niagara Falls, Canada, a traffic jam shortly before midnight on a Sunday is unprecedented. A line of cars, all registered in the Canadian state of Ontario and piled high with baggage, stretches back from the entrance Rainbow Bridge.

“We’re hoping to beat the traffic,” said Ed from Paris, Ontario.

“We’re heading for Florida. It’s a little warmer than it is here.”

Normally, Canada’s snowbirds would start heading south to Florida earlier in autumn. But since March 2020, the border has been open only for essential travel.

Read Simon Calder’s account of his border crossing from Canada to the US in full:

What it’s like to be the first British tourist to cross Canada-US border in 20 months

Simon Calder arrives in New York

08:24 , Helen Coffey

Having gone the slightly circuitous way round - flying into Canada at the weekend and then crossing the US border as soon as the travel ban lifted at midnight - The Independent’s travel correspondent, Simon Calder, has arrived in New York. He’s one of the first British tourists to do so in around 20 months.

Live from Terminal 5

08:12 , Mark Jones

Terrace, BA Concorde Terrace, Heathrow Terminal 5: Good morning from T5. It’s a big day, and British Airways knows it. At least some of them do. Bronze, said the check-in person acidly, as I showed my boarding pass. ‘BA1’, her colleague explained and I was let through.

‘BA1’ is a magic password. There are five normal BA flights taking off for the US. BA 001 (that’s formerly the call sign of Concorde), is the sixth, a special BA flight leaving for New York – and celebrating the airline’s stateside return after 20 months in the Covid cold.

I’ll be reporting live from the flight and the shindig New York is holding to welcome the Brits back.

You know it’s a special event because BA has buried the hatchet with Virgin: it’s a joint party and the first special flights from each airline will take off at the same time.

In fact, the hatchet has been pretty well interred since Richard Branson ceased to have anything to do with Virgin Atlantic and the combative Willie Walsh quit BA and its parent group, IAG. Virgin these days is the British branch of Delta Airlines: and passions don’t run quite as high there.

Still, it’ll be interesting to see if the old foes can play nice over the next 48 hours.

What are the new rules for British travellers entering the US?

07:51 , Helen Coffey

Six hundred days after a presidential proclamation from Donald Trump closed off the US to British visitors, the ban on arrivals from the UK has been lifted – for fully vaccinated travellers only. A similar ban on arrivals from dozens of other countries has come to an end.

Read Simon Calder’s comprehensive explainer for everything you need to know about the new system. It’s based on studying all the available official online information, plus inferences – clearly indicated – based on existing policies and background conversations with officials and airlines:

Back to the US: After travel ban lifts, how new rules for British visitors work

Travel is back with a bang

07:35 , Mark Jones

This really feels like proper travel is back – and back to something like normality. Except I’m FAR more excited than I’d normally be for a business trip.

I even spent the night in an airport hotel, the Sofitel, so I could be at the gate extra early. I’d forgotten the anonymity and ever-present low hum of airport hotels: things I actually quite like. It’s like being in an airlock between places.

(Mind, I am only spending eight hours here, not three weeks).

It’s nice to have first world worries again. The first is working out where your room is in a Sofitel. They have some fiendishly brilliant French numbering system that requires Room 2316 to be on the third floor.

The room (when I find it) is fine and soothing with oblong lamps made to look like Japanese screens and an imitation Eames chair and footstool. So nice to be able to nick white slippers and ESPA toiletries again. But WHERE is the fluffy bathrobe? WHERE? Don’t tell me they're a casualty of Covid...

US travel restarts

07:33 , Helen Coffey

Good morning, and welcome to The Independent’s travel liveblog.As the US finally reopens to British tourists, we have two correspondents out in the field reporting back: Simon Calder, who crossed the border on foot from Canada at midnight, and Mark Jones, who is onboard the first British Airways London-NYC flight since restrictions ended for vaccinated travellers.

We’ll be posting updates from their journeys throughout the day, and finding out what the “new normal” is like for US tourists in the pandemic era.

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