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‘An unbelievable feeling’: joyous passengers head to US as travel ban lifts

Before transatlantic travel was brought to a standstill by the pandemic, Michael Williams, a technology entrepreneur who lives in Germany, used to shuttle “back and forth like it was a bus” on flights between Europe and the US.

On Monday, after a 20-month hiatus, Williams was back in the US, along with thousands of other foreign nationals who boarded flights on the first day the border reopened to them. He arrived at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport from Frankfurt just before noon, walking straight into a bear hug from his friend of more than two decades.

“It’s an unbelievable feeling,” he said. “I’m happy I’m here.”

Similar scenes played out at airports across the US on Monday as families, couples and friends rushed to reunite following the lifting of Covid-19 restrictions — imposed by former president Donald Trump and kept in place by his successor Joe Biden — that banned most travellers from the UK and Europe.

The excitement was felt not just in airport arrival halls but also at the headquarters of US airlines, which have been hammered by the travel ban and forced to rely on a rebound in domestic flying that has far outpaced international traffic.

United Airlines said it was expecting about 30,000 inbound international travellers on Monday, a 50 per cent increase from a week earlier, and president Brett Hart said the Chicago-based carrier predicted a return to pre-pandemic levels by the end of 2023.

At Delta Air Lines, international bookings rose 450 per cent in the six weeks following the announcement that travel restrictions would lift, compared to the prior six-week period. American Airlines reported that demand for flights from Heathrow International Airport was nearly 70 per cent higher this week than last.

Michael Williams embraces friend and business partner Craig Pettigrew at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport © Claire Bushey / FT

Jane and Nigel Purdy from Dublin are greeted by their daughter Kate MacBride and her nine-month-old baby at John F Kennedy International Airport © Peter Wells / FT

The atmosphere at Heathrow’s Terminal 3 was circus-like on Monday morning. Before 7am, a packed Virgin Atlantic check-in area hosted two jugglers dressed as Uncle Sam, a pair of women in star-spangled leotards adorned with red, white and blue feathers, and an Elvis impersonator.

On the sidelines, Virgin air crew took pictures of one another in front of a Universal Studios backdrop with people dressed as Shrek and Kung Fu Panda. Other airline staff handed out pretzels and popcorn, remarking that they had not seen such long lines at the terminal since the start of the pandemic.

Across the Atlantic at New York’s John F Kennedy International Airport, Amelia Velasco and her sister, both from north-west Spain, had plans to see Velasco’s daughter in San Francisco — but not before several days of sightseeing in the Big Apple.

Velasco said she was looking forward to doing “all the big things” in the city, including a Broadway show, a visit to the Museum of Modern Art, as well as a stroll around Central Park and across the Brooklyn Bridge.

Just outside the terminal, Jane and Nigel Purdy from Dublin were all smiles as they embraced their daughter Kate MacBride and her nine-month-old baby.

“That’s so beautiful,” whispered a nearby onlooker.

MacBride, her husband and their new daughter had visited the Purdys in Ireland over the summer, but her parents have not travelled to the US in more than three years. They said their flight was packed and the airline had called them on Sunday to ask if they would be willing to cancel.

“There’s no way we’d be doing that,” Nigel said.

Back in Chicago, Soomin Kim waited, carnations in hand, for his girlfriend Yerin Hong to arrive. The pair met six months ago in Korea, before Hong travelled to Germany to study. Kim said that before Hong returns he plans to propose.

For now, most of the travellers filling the long-haul jets are either visiting loved ones or going on holiday. US airline chiefs predict that more profitable business flyers, who fill the expensive seats at the front of the plane, will start returning in meaningful numbers in January.

Still, some business travellers are already back in the US. As well as being friends, Williams and Craig Pettigrew, who met him at O’Hare, became business partners during the pandemic. They were headed straight from the Chicago airport to pitch their youth sports analytics business, GG8 Sports, to the US Soccer Federation.

The meeting had been scheduled for an earlier date, only to be cancelled when they realised the travel restrictions would prevent Williams from attending.

“We had to move the meeting to the first day he could get here,” Pettigrew said.

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