The U.S. reopening is relaunching the world’s most lucrative flight route

November 8, 2021, 11:59 AM UTC

The U.S. has reopened its borders to non-U.S. travelers from Europe, bringing a $1 billion flight route back onto the market.

Flights between London’s Heathrow Airport and New York’s John F. Kennedy International have finally reopened for tourists and business travelers after 18 months of pandemic border closures—reinvigorating a flight route that before the COVID-19 pandemic generated a 10-figure number in revenue each year.

U.K. airline rivals British Airways and Virgin Atlantic rang in the day together, with BA flight BA001—a flight number usually reserved for the supersonic Concorde—and Virgin flight VS3 taking off together toward JFK at 8:30 a.m. in London.

But despite the celebration, the major route reopening comes at an awkward time. Cases are peaking across the U.S., the U.K., and Europe, and demand is still lower than pre-pandemic figures. Flight bookings to and from the U.S. have reached 70% of their pre-pandemic levels, according to data from Travelport, an IT company for the tourism and travel industry.

Most tickets for trips to the U.S. were bought by Britons, who booked more U.S.-bound flights than travelers from Germany, Italy, Spain, France, the Netherlands, Ireland, Switzerland, and Denmark combined. Most bookings were made by couples and families seeking to be reunited, according to Travelport.

Desperate for recovery

Regardless of suppressed demand, the border reopening is welcome news for the U.S. travel economy, which suffered weekly losses of $1.5 billion in spending from Canadians, Europeans, and Britons during the border closure, according to the U.S. Travel Association. Globally, the International Air Transport Association (IATA) predicts airline losses are set to surpass $200 billion.

“It’s great to see it happening,” IATA director general Willie Walsh told Bloomberg about the reopening. “It’s very important both for the industry and the message it sends. The fact that the U.S. was closed to Europe gave a lot of other countries comfort that they could keep their borders closed.”

Moving forward, British Airways is scaling up to six trips a day from JFK to Heathrow and an additional two more to Newark Liberty Airport by late winter, according to Bloomberg. Airlines such as Deutsche Lufthansa and United Airlines are also expected to benefit from the opened borders as travelers return to routes between London, Paris, and Frankfurt and major U.S. destinations such as New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles. Newcomers are expected to flood the market as well, with low-cost budget airlines like Norwegian Air and Norse Atlantic Airways joining the reopening rush.

Analysts at Deutsche Bank describe the pickup in international volumes as “meaningful,” although Delta variant cases have pushed large corporations to delay return-to-office dates. Deutsche analysts attributed the 7.3% decline in December bookings compared with 2019 to the rise in Delta cases. They added that major airlines were flying less than low-cost carriers because they had been “disproportionately impacted” by the slower demand recovery in long-haul travel.

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