An emotional return to New York: What it was like on the first British Airways flight to the US on reopening day
Editor’s note: British Airways invited TPG’s Ben Smithson to fly for free as a guest of the airline. The opinions expressed below are entirely his and weren’t subject to review by British Airways.
Monday, Nov. 8, was one of the biggest days for the travel industry — and British Airways — this year.
The United States reopened to fully vaccinated international travelers after a ban on nonessential travel lasting longer than 600 days.
New York is British Airways' most important long-haul destination, so it was fitting that this iconic city was chosen for the first flight on reopening day. For the first time ever, traditional rivals British Airways and Virgin Atlantic teamed up for a parallel takeoff of their dual A350 morning services to New York-JFK.
British Airways invited TPG along as a guest on this very special flight.
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The history of flight BA1
Long-time British Airways travelers and AvGeeks alike may recall the significance of the BA1 flight number.
The flight number was given to the Concorde service in the 1980s between London Heathrow (LHR) and New York-JFK before the flight number was retired in 2003 as the Concorde flew its final commercial services.
More recently, the BA1 flight number returned for the special all-business-class Airbus 318 service from London City Airport (LCY) to New York-JFK with its special fuel stop in Shannon (SNN) that also allowed passengers to pass through U.S. immigration in Ireland and then arrive in New York as domestic passengers with a quick skip through arrivals.
This AvGeek bucket list service was unfortunately discontinued in 2020 as business travel plunged during the pandemic.
While the BA1 flight number has no current regular home, British Airways decided to award this number to the first flight from the United Kingdom to the United States on reopening day — for one day only. The flight was operated by the airline's new Airbus A350 service featuring its new Club Suite in business class.
Related: Suite Escape: A Review of British Airways’ Club Suite on the A350 From London to Dubai
Heathrow was busy with passengers early on Monday morning before the sun had even risen with long lines even for security in the First Wing.
Despite uploading documents into the VeriFLY app before departure, predeparture tests and vaccination certificates were double-checked at check-in, which is not an unusual experience for anyone who has traveled internationally this year.
Passengers were encouraged to board a full hour before departure to ensure the dual departure could proceed smoothly, which I was told took months of planning. There was, perhaps surprisingly, little celebration at the gate beyond a few American flags casually hung in the jetbridge and announcements that this was a "very special flight."
On board the flight
Greeting passengers on board was a more lively atmosphere on board the Airbus A350 with strings of U.S. flags hung throughout the cabins and special headrests for our special flight.
The Club Suite cabin was full of journalists and British Airways executives, including British Airways CEO Sean Doyle. There were plenty of photographs taken, introductions made and Champagne enjoyed during the somewhat chaotic but jovial mood inside the front cabin.
There was a smattering of AvGeeks on the flight, though not nearly as many as you might expect on, say, an inaugural flight. We taxied to runway 27R ready for an on-time departure at 8:20 a.m., though waited around 15 minutes for Virgin Atlantic to reach the same position on the parallel runway 27L.
The dual takeoff was really impressive as we climbed through the air and I lucked out with my window seat on the left-hand side with a fantastic view of the Virgin Atlantic A350 aircraft tracking the same path from the other runway.
A huge cheer went up in the front cabin as the wheels left the tarmac as the combination of being on such an important flight and two traditional rival airlines coming together to celebrate together hit home.
I was surprised to see the flight was completely full in all three cabins (I monitored the flight carefully as soon as the Nov. 8 date was announced, and it seemed to come on and off sale regularly as if British Airways wasn't quite sure whether to keep this flight as a media-only service or fill the flight up with as many paying passengers as possible).
They chose the latter, and it's a great sign for the return of demand for transatlantic travel.
British Airways CEO Sean Doyle gave an emotional speech to passengers, explaining why this was such an important day for his airline.
"We didn't expect to be locked out for 602 days. We had expected a reopening announcement months ago at the G7 summit in Cornwall," he explained. "British Airways has traditionally been the largest European [airline] in the United States so to have this important gateway closed has been difficult. We used to fly to 30 destinations in North America; we are only at 17 right now but hope to be back to 23 by Christmas, with all returning by next summer. Our flights to the United States this week are full and that is very encouraging."
Doyle also admitted that the airline would be smaller in summer 2022 than it had been before the pandemic, with a return of full capacity and passenger numbers not expected until 2023 at the earliest.
He announced to the entire plane that he would be moving through the cabin to talk to passengers to hear their stories about returning to the U.S. after such a long absence, be it for business travel, a long-overdue vacation or reuniting with family and friends.
Doyle was easily the most popular passenger on the plane, and journalists scrambled to interview him in the tight and completely full cabin.
I asked Doyle if the pre-departure test requirement for fully vaccinated passengers was a frustrating barrier to the resumption of transatlantic travel.
For now, he told TPG, he was just happy borders had finally reopened. He told me the United Kingdom retains the most onerous testing procedures of any major European aviation hub and his hope is that the Day 2 U.K. tests, as well as the pre-departure tests to enter the United States for fully vaccinated travelers, are removed by next summer as governments place more faith in vaccines and encourage ease of travel.
There were some subtle but fun New York touches in the traditionally British inflight menu: It's not clear if these were special for this flight or if they'll be a regular feature on these flights. Breakfast was served shortly after takeoff and featured a "cruffin" served alongside a crumpet.
The traditional British afternoon tea featured a New York-style blueberry cheesecake from BA's excellent DO & CO caterers.
The cabin crew were outstanding on this flight — amongst the best BA crew I've ever had — particularly considering the Airbus A350 has tight aisles and galleys, and journalists spent much of the flight standing there to conduct interviews and capture the special day on camera.
The crew managed to constantly weave their way through and cheerily delivered Champagne, amenity kits and two full meal services.
The rest of the flight passed uneventfully, with most passengers seemingly unaware of the activity occurring up the front of the plane. I'd expected more of a celebration onboard. But because the airline was only given a few weeks of notice about the reopening day, they may have not have had sufficient time to organize festivities.
Passengers were handed a small box of Aviation Gin with a "welcome back to America" card from Ryan Reynolds (who is actually Canadian). There were also donuts from Project D decorated with stars and stripes.
While the airline's shiny new Airbus A350 was a wonderful way to cross the Atlantic, don't expect to see it operating New York City flights again on a regular basis. While the route is the very first high-frequency route to receive 'all Club suites' services, these will be on 777 aircraft.
A British Airways executive on my flight revealed that the demand for first class is so strong, it makes sense to operate most New York City services with a first-class cabin, which the A350 doesn't have.
We landed at New York-JFK ahead of schedule. Although staff assured me it was not a race, I noticed Virgin Atlantic's A350 aircraft touch down just a few minutes before us.
While the gate celebrations at Heathrow were decidedly muted, it was a completely different story in New York with an overwhelming celebration. British Airways ground staff lined the jetbridge waving U.K. and U.S. flags and clapping and cheering loudly.
Having been a very regular visitor to this airport before the pandemic, I shed a few tears. I was finally returning to New York after almost a two-year absence. In the arrivals hall, there was a flurry of local press as well as more celebrations with dozens of ground crew cheering loudly and welcoming every single passenger back to New York.
Families have reunited after 600 days apart and there were plenty of happy tears as local news crews swarmed to capture the action.
The customs and immigration process was incredibly quick (we were the first British Airways flight of the day) and the staff members were very friendly, too.
It was an exciting and emotional experience to be on the first flight to the United States on reopening day, from the special flight number, the dual takeoff with Virgin Atlantic and sitting just three feet away from the British Airways CEO the entire flight, culminating with a wonderfully warm welcome from local staff and press in New York City.
For many passengers like myself, it was our first long-haul flight of the pandemic and a real symbol of how quickly travel is now returning. British Airways is rapidly ramping up its New York services now that Brits can enter for any reason, and the airline plans to have at least 10 daily flights by next summer.
It's wonderful to be back in the United States and experience such an important day for both the travel industry and British Airways, which also brought its largest aircraft, the double-decker A380, back to commercial service for the first time since the onset of the pandemic.
The plane is initially operating short-haul flights between London (LHR) to Frankfurt (FRA) and Madrid (MAD) to refamiliarize the crew before resuming long-haul operations with the A380 next month. TPG's Nicky Kelvin was on the first flight on Monday.