British Airways flight BA001 (right) and Virgin Atlantic flight VS3 (left) perform a synchronised departure on parallel runways at London Heathrow Airport.
British Airways flight BA001 (right) and Virgin Atlantic flight VS3 (left) perform their synchronised departure on parallel runways at London Heathrow Airport. Photograph: Doug Peters/PA

There were clear skies and a bright new dawn at London Heathrow for its biggest customers, British Airways and Virgin Atlantic, who took off simultaneously in a show of extraordinary solidarity on Monday morning, flying west with planes fully loaded with passengers and revenues rolling in as the US finally opened its borders to foreign visitors again.

Our transport correspondent Gwyn Topham, who is aboard BA’s flight, reports.

For both airlines, US markets constitute the biggest part of their business – almost 40% for BA, with six flights scheduled today to New York JFK, alone while 10 of 21 Virgin flights taking off today are for America.

A few Americans have travelled the transatlantic throughout, and more since August when the UK and EU relaxed restrictions for incoming, quarantined visitors. But it is more than 600 days since the airlines have been able to sell into their biggest market, crucial as they seek to recover from the pandemic.

Speaking before the flight, Virgin chief executive Shai Weiss described it as “a tipping point”.

Plenty of other flights were taking off from Heathrow Terminal 5 – if roughly half the number of two years ago - but there was only one destination in town. To underline the significance for anyone who missed it, the BA check-in, the cabins and even the air bridge from the gate to the plane festooned with American flags.

The planes took to the skies just after 8.50am – using their most fuel-efficient models, A350s, after both airlines having retired their famous 747 jumbos early as a cost-saving measure during the pandemic. BA flight 001 took off on the northern runway, with Virgin flight VS3 rising into the air exactly in parallel.

BA chief executive Sean Doyle told passengers over the tannoy:

“This is a real moment of celebration. I know how much today means to you – some have not seen your loved ones for two years, others have not been able to do business.”

He also told them that flight BA001 was powered by a blend of 35% sustainable aviation fuel [SAF] – the largest mix used yet on a commercial flight, while remaining emissions would be offset, via wind and solar power projects.

“In the years ahead,” Doyle said, “we envisage all our long haul flights will be powered by SAFs.”

It was a reminder that aviation still has plenty of challenges ahead. For now, though, some optimism has returned.

Friends and family were some of the first to book to fill planes this week, the airlines said, with planes across Virgin’s US departures 98% full till Wednesday. Doyle said there had been a significant bookings too from corporate customers and small businesses, giving lie to the idea that business travel was dead. Bankers in particular had booked to fly back, boosting the revenues from premium cabins.

But holidaymakers have also filled the front ends of the planes, according to BA Holidays managing director Claire Bentley:

“People are upgrading, treating themselves.”

City breaks had generally not been sought after during the pandemic, for those who did try to get away despite the testing requirements and travel restrictions, she said.

The US east coast’s biggest city has long been its best seller though and is coming back fast:

“New York is in a category of its own.”