At New York airport, separated relatives finally find 'human connection'

As soon as she spots her son Liam at New York’s JFK airport, Alison Henry runs towards him and gives him a long hug, tears welling up in her eyes.

“I just can’t believe it, two and half years!” she says after stepping off a British Airways flight from London, as the United States reopened to vaccinated visitors Monday.

“It’s just so emotional, overwhelming,” Henry, 63, tells AFP.

She and 31-year-old Liam have spoken every week since the United States drastically limited travel from several countries, including the UK, at the start of the pandemic in March 2020.

“(But) this human connection, when it’s real and in front of you, is what I missed the most,” says Liam, who has lived in Brooklyn for several years, his eyes glistening above his face mask. 

He has lots of places to show his parents and grandmother Patricia — who didn’t hesitate to make the trip despite being almost 88 years old — but mostly they just plan to spend time together.

“Every day we have been watching the news, waiting and waiting for America to open up,” said mum Alison. They booked their tickets as soon as the announcement was made official last month.

At terminal seven inside JFK, the first passengers off BA’s first flight since the borders reopened are greeted with clapping and cheering and company-colored red, white and blue balloons.

They also receive cookies in the shape of a yellow taxi, a big apple and the Statue of Liberty, three symbols of the metropolis that is desperate to welcome back tourists to boost its ravaged economy.

Businessmen are among the first to disembark.

“It’s great to be back. It’s fantastic,” several of them say to waiting TV crews.

Next come the passengers eager to reunite with loved ones.

They include a grandmother who has never seen her grandson before, a man who waits with a bouquet of red roses for a close friend he has not seen for 11 years, and an aunt who finds her two nieces and plans a big family reunion dinner tonight.

After 730 days of separation, Jill Chambers is finally able to hug her sister and nephews. “I’m so happy,” she repeats over and over, her eyes red. 

– ‘Milestone’ –

Before finding Chambers, her sister Louise Erebara had warned: “I’m going to cry like a hysteric.”

“It’s been terrible not knowing when we were going to see them again due to Covid, not knowing if the borders were ever going to open,” Erebara tells AFP.

For Max, a young man in a hurry to reunite with friends and family, the separation was also “very, very hard.”

“We communicated on Zoom, but it’s not the same as in real life,” he told AFP before rushing towards the exit.

To mark the occasion, British Airways gave the flight the prestigious number “BA1,” which belonged to the Concorde when it was still flying between London and New York.

The trip was “fantastic,” says BA CEO Sean Doyle, making his first visit to New York since the beginning of last year.

BA never completely stopped its services throughout the pandemic, but the first flight of the reopening is “a very important milestone,” he tells AFP.

Transatlantic flights are essential to the company’s finances.

“Our sense is that demand should be getting back there by 2023-24,” Doyle adds.

But for at least one passenger, the reopening wasn’t a moment of celebration.

“I’ve had a nice two years of not having to fly anywhere,” says Tom Hargreaves, among the first business class passengers to get off the plane. 

“And now I have to start doing that again.”

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