“Where you all been?” japed one onlooker as passengers disembarked BA001 from Heathrow to New York last week just hours after the US reopened its borders to nationals of more than 30 countries.
Having been barred from visiting the country for more than 600 days, the significance of the 8 November reopening – for families, friends, businesses and of course the travel industry – could not be underestimated.
Passengers were welcomed by flag-waving British Airways and airport staff at New York’s JFK airport and met in the arrivals hall by a throng of camera crews and reporters capturing emotional reunions.
Back at London's Heathrow Airport, British Airways and Virgin Atlantic had orchestrated a synchronised take-off from parallel runways in a show of unity and to maximise publicity, while BA adopted a flight number previously reserved for Concorde.
Earlier still, British Airways chief executive officer Sean Doyle had begun a long day of media engagements with a series of broadcast interviews in the pre-dawn darkness at Heathrow.
The two airlines were among many companies for whom the reopening of the US could not come soon enough.
Big moment for British Airways
Addressing journalists invited onboard the flight – I was privileged to be among them, representing BTN Europe – Doyle said the day was “a very important turning point in our recovery from what has been the greatest crisis that aviation has seen”.
He continued: “The emotional toll of the pandemic has been significant but the business toll is significant as well. The amount of trade and business done between the two countries [the UK and US] is huge.
“You need to get in front of people to keep on building relationships and building economic activity. We’re a catalyst and an enabler. We’ve been hibernating for a lot longer than any of us would have feared when the pandemic started.”
Doyle said the airline was now operating 17 US routes from the UK which would increase to 22 or 23 by December, while frequencies – at up to 246 flights a week between the countries – are closing in on 80 per cent of pre-Covid capacity.
The airline operated flights to Boston, Los Angeles, Chicago, San Francisco and New York throughout the pandemic but grounded much of its global network.
“My plan is to get probably the same level of service and capacity into the market by Q3 next summer as we had in 2019. The flights are full this week and bookings are very encouraging,” said Doyle.
“We will have the leading network across the Atlantic by December of any European airline. We’re very ambitious and there’s a huge amount of pent-up demand we want to meet.”
Doyle declined to comment on parent company IAG's recent financial results but offered a view on the airline's recovery. “It’s going to be a couple of years before we get back to where we were in 2019. If you listen to IATA they say 2023-2024. We will be a smaller business next summer, but we will be rebuilding in 2023 and 2024 back to the size that we were.”
He continued: “What we want for aviation is just the opportunity to recover our
business like everyone else. We were first into it and last out of it;
we’re very important to the economic recovery.”
The magnitude of the occasion could not detract from airlines’ responsibilities
to reduce their environmental impact, particularly with the COP26 conference continuing
Speaking to journalists onboard flight BA001, the airline’s chief
executive Sean Doyle pointed out that the aircraft operating the flight, an
A350-1000, had a carbon footprint approximately 40 per cent less than the B747
that used to fly the route. In addition, 35 per cent of the fuel used on this
particular flight was sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) provided by bp and made
from used cooking oil, and BA offset all emissions associated with the flight.
“We are pushing to make sure we have the supply of sustainable
aviation fuels because we want to power 10 per cent of our flights by SAF by
2030 and we’d love to power all of our flights by SAF in the future,” said
The chief exec also highlighted the airline’s investment in a
joint venture with Zeroavia to explore the use of hydrogen to create
carbon-zero propulsion. “Hydrogen is a very credible solution for shorter
sector flights for planes with up to 100 seats. The view is that by the early
2030s we could see hydrogen-battery powered hybrid aircraft coming on stream,” said Doyle.
“SAF is very important because it’s going to be a long time
before we see those sorts of solutions for long-haul travel.”
Speaking to Bloomberg TV on the same day, IAG chief executive Luis Gallego said the group is assuming a reduction in corporate travel in 2023 of around ten to 15 per cent compared to 2019.
In the short-term, however, travel management companies are already seeing the impact of US borders reopening. The UK’s Business Travel Association, whose CEO Clive Wratten also travelled onboard BA001, reported a 144 per cent week-on-week increase in forward bookings for US travel among its members’ customers.
“This re-opening is vital to the UK and US economies. Now we must ensure we introduce international protocols that promote safe travel for business and leisure across the world,” said Wratten.
Empire state of mind
Later that night, Doyle was among a group of dignitaries taking part in a ceremony to light up the Empire State Building in blue, red and white to mark the return of UK visitors.
“The UK is New York City’s number one international market,” Fred Dixon, president and CEO of NYC & Company, the city’s tourism authority, told attendees. “The reopening of the border is such a significant moment for us.”
International visitors comprise 20 per cent of overall visitor numbers to the city but account for 50 per cent of spending and 50 per cent of hotel nights, he added.
Emma Wade-Smith, the UK’s newly appointed Trade Commissioner and Consul General to New York, noted there are 1.2 million people in the US who work for British-owned companies while the two nations have the largest bilateral trade and investment relationship in the world.
Bringing the formal speeches to a close, BA’s Doyle said: “British Airways is back and the transatlantic is back and we’re here to do what we do well which is to connect people and places. We have a big role to play and we are back with a vengeance.”
Andy Hoskins was hosted by British Airways, the Hilton hotels group and NYC & Company. British Airways will fly up to eight times a day from
London to New York from December, with return fares from £343. Rates start from $541 (+tax) per night at the Conrad New York Midtown and from $179 (+tax) at the Hilton New York Midtown.