What is the collective noun for a group of journalists? Google suggests “pack”, “herd”, “scoop”, and “crowd”. But the word that sprung to my mind while on the BA 001 flight to JFK, fourth glass of champagne in hand, was frenzy. A palpable excitement swelled inside our cabin as the Airbus A350 took to the air at 8.23 am on Monday 8 November in its dual takeoff from Heathrow with Virgin Atlantic. When the wheels left the tarmac on runway 27R a big cheer rippled through the plane, which was festooned with American flags. The event marked the resumption of transatlantic flights, 604 days since the travel ban, and energies ran high.
As soon as the seatbelt sign flickered off reporters, from The Times to Hello magazine, scrabbled, cameras and phones at the ready, to the middle of Business class where British Airways CEO Sean Doyle hosted a mini conference. Forming a motley of devices and notepads, we strained to catch the flurry of words over the ambient roar of engine. It was a moment in the history of transatlantic travel that’s testament to clever public relations strategy, and one that I certainly won’t forget.
Masked-up and dressed in an ironed pink shirt, Doyle gave a 15-minute talk honoring the “momentous occasion”, outlining British Airways’ plans for the future and the changing nature of tourism post-covid. Acknowledging the contemporaneity of the flight and Cop26, he also spoke of the alterations that will be made to aircraft and fuel to render flying more environmentally friendly (35 per cent the fuel for this flight was made up of sustainable aviation fuel, SAF, created from reused cooking oil – “We’re looking to power all our flight by SAF by 2030”). Doyle also announced that British Airways is exploring “hydrogen opportunities” for a net zero future.
Questions answered and duly noted, Doyle regained his seat, where an assistant handed him a phone to watch the footage of the synchronised BA-Virgin takeoff, a first for Heathrow that was the result of “putting rivalry aside”. Clouds raced past the windows; the moment was already history.
“I feel like crying, I’m so emotional” Jill, 57, from Blackburn tells me, nursing a glass of bubbly. She and her husband Mark, 62, are on their way to visit her older sister in Brooklyn after their longest period apart. “It’s been emotional, an amazing feeling. My sister applied for expat reunion and we managed to get tickets for this flight. I cannot wait to hug my sister – it’s been a very long two years. I’ve been to visit her every year for the last thirty years, so it really has been the hardest time.”
Monday saw the total lifting of the United States’ travel ban for 33 countries, but caution remains: all aircraft was sanitised prior to boarding, and masks, covid passes and rapid antigen tests are still necessary. Mandatory quarantine has been scrapped for fully-vaccinated passengers.
While reporters and transport correspondents disappeared to the back of the plane for further quotes, the rest of us were able to sit back and enjoy the procession of food – smoked salmon, avocado toasts, traditional Full English – and bottomless drinks from about 9am onwards. After an initial glass of champagne, I was enticed by the sound of the “Pamplemousse Spritz”, a concoction of vodka, grapefruit liqueur and bitters, mixed with a drop of white wine and soda. Moments later the spritz arrived, tinkling with ice and edible flowers, and, along with it, the blushing mixologist who’d designed it. I was later told by one of the stewards that in the course of five hours we’d consumed close to 60 bottles of champagne, which, considering there were 62 journalists on board, was really quite something.
This joyful frenzy followed us off the plane and into JFK, passengers greeted by a colonnade of airport staff waving flags, shouting “Welcome!” and “Great to have you back!” Rose petals were thrown, and cookies shaped like the Statue of Liberty pressed into surprised hands. Stranger still was wheeling one’s suitcase through Nothing to Declare – which was covered with graphic posters warning of “African Swine Flu” – to find Arrivals teeming with cameras. The American press and the British Press stood blinking at each other until the sight of reuniting loved ones took centre-stage.
It was a beautiful scene: families falling into each other’s arms, folks meeting grandchildren for the first time, partners finally reunited, no longer an ocean apart. It served as an important reminder that while for some flying to the United States merely represents a vacation, for many it is a lifeline that connects them to their closest friends and family.
Moment captured, the frenzy was then ferried by coach to a sunshine-baked Manhattan for a two-night stay at The Conrad hotel in Midtown. A silence befell our party – perhaps we were all too stunned by the cityscape rising before us to speak. This is understandable: I’ve been to New York many times, and I never cease being mesmerised by it. After almost two years away, you want to take it all in.
It’s a feeling, a whoosh of awe and adrenaline that makes visiting New York so special. Just stepping out onto the street is to become a part of the pulsating metropolis; dry cleaners, florists, and Ethiopian restaurants sitting flush next to nail salons, thrift stores, Russian spas, Dosa stands, mystics offering tarot card readings, games of chess in full swing. There is the sense that anyone can be anything here, a promise of reinvention as intoxicating as it is inviting.
And “inviting” is an apt description of The Conrad hotel. Formerly The London, it occupies a handsome toffee-coloured building right by the MoMA gallery. It’s a serene haven despite its location in the buzziest part of town (Time Square is just a few streets away). While the older of Manhattan’s prestigious hotels often reveal glistening lobbies that seem to stretch for miles before reaching the elevator, The Conrad’s newly designed entrance is pleasingly modest, its revolving door leading to a compact marble foyer in tastefully muted shades of gold. A comfort amid the chaos.
The hotel boasts over 300 suites set across 57 floors, each styled mid-century modern, with leather wingback chairs, king-size beds, and marble bathrooms forming what is, effectively, your own small apartment. My suite, on the 38th floor, had a spectacular view of Central Park, the trees still bearing their red and orange leaves, the sky a perfect November blue. At sunrise the whole scene blazed with colour.
That evening a ceremony was held at the Empire State in honour of the dual flights. Doyle, now in a suit and tie, gave a toast to the importance of air travel and the power of the UK-US relationship, before pulling the lever down and illuminating the building to rapturous applause.
All the world is here, and now the rest can visit. New York, it’s good to be back.