MINNEAPOLIS — After a business trip to the Upper Midwest filled with cheese curds, local craft beer and a Timberwolves game, Nick James arrived at MSP's Gate 6 on Monday with a big smile on his face.
For the first time in two years, the British marketing professional could fly home to London - direct - without worrying about a layover.
"Speed," James said, "is so important."
James and a group of 111 other passengers boarded Delta Airlines Flight 0010 just before 5 p.m., welcomed with balloons, live music and complimentary tea to celebrate Delta's resumption of non-stop service from Minneapolis-St. Paul to London-Heathrow.
The daily direct flight to London, which served 42,000 people a year before the pandemic, marks the 11th international route to return to MSP since COVID-19 upended the world. Delta has already restarted flights to Amsterdam, Paris, Mexico City, Cancun, Calgary, Toronto and Winnipeg, joining competitors Air Canada (Toronto), KLM (Amsterdam) and Sun Country (Cancun) in broadening their international footprint out of Minneapolis.
"We've been in pain the last two years. We haven't been able to make these international flights, and two years is a long time in business to be jumping on Zoom calls," said James, who lives only a few minutes from Heathrow Airport in London. "There's nothing like being able to shake hands with people, look people in the eye, do deals, and get here quickly."
Brian Ryks, the CEO of the Metropolitan Airports Commission, said the MSP-to-London flight generates millions of dollars in economic impact every year. The daily route to Heathrow serves as a cornerstone of European air travel out of MSP.
"Europe has come back. It came back early with the institution of testing and some other things we did here. The big question is Asia," Ryks said. "Hopefully, we're looking to fall of this year for Asia service to return, but that's still a big question mark depending on what happens."
Still, by the end of the summer, the Metropolitan Airports Commission expects 19 of 24 international routes to return to operation. In the next few months, Delta will resume daily flights to Reykjavik, Iceland, along with Montreal and Vancouver. Air Canada will add a new route to Montreal, Air France will start flying again to Paris four times a week, Condor will restart service to Frankfurt, Germany, and Sun Country will fly to Vancouver twice a week. By the end of this month, even, Icelandair will start up Reykjavik flights again.
But few routes can match the importance of Delta's direct flight to London.
"This is a great day," Ryks said.
Some travelers at Gate 6 on Monday did not even realize they were on the first direct flight to London since early 2020.
"It's a seven-hour flight," said Bilan Omar, who has family in London. "It's a lot easier than before, especially traveling with kids, so it's easier for me."
Mary Picard, meanwhile, booked this flight more than a month ago and said she did "cartwheels" when she saw a direct option. She's seeing friends in London, a city she hasn't visited in three decades.
"Somebody's got to be the first, right?" Picard said. "Direct flights are just a little more relaxing."
No longer having to fly through hubs like Atlanta, Orlando or New York City to get to this part of the United States, marketing professional Nick James said he's certainly going to make a trip back to the Twin Cities.
"Everything's waking up again. People can do business again, people can see their family again," James said. "Thanks to these kind of connections now back in place, things are getting back to normal and that's a really good thing."