Travel news: A flying start for The Rock

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Anew and improved gateway to the south of Spain: that's what Gibraltar will be from next Saturday, when restrictions on flights to and from "The Rock" are finally eased.

Since 1987, Spanish law has imposed punitive flight rules on the disputed territory, but under the terms of the Cordoba Accord - signed earlier this year by British, Spanish and Gibraltarian governments - these are to end on 16 December.

Flights from Spain will begin immediately. The first passenger arrival from Madrid is scheduled to touch down at 1pm next Saturday. It marks the start of a daily service between Gibraltar and the Spanish capital, operated by Iberia. "This is historic and very important," says a source at the Spanish airline. A test flight has already taken place: special training is needed for pilots because of Gibraltar's difficult approach. The airport is actually a military airfield, under the control of the Ministry of Defence, which allows civilian flights as a concession.

Fares of €101 (£72) return are available for the flight, potentially making Gibraltar an attractive add-on for visitors to Madrid. Indeed, Gibraltar Tourist Board has now opened a Madrid office.

Passengers arriving on the Iberia flights have a choice of country when they exit the airport. They can either enter Gibraltar as normal, or catch a special bus across the border to the Spanish town of La Linea - effectively making it a domestic flight. This mirrors the arrangements at Geneva and Basel airports, where passengers can exit to France or Switzerland.

GB Airways plans daily flights to Madrid from May. The airline, which flies on behalf of British Airways, is owned by Gibraltarians and was formerly known as Gibraltar Airways. Links to Barcelona are also being considered. Next Saturday, GB Airways will operate a celebratory flight, taking 100 children from Gibraltar to Madrid for the day.

Airspace rules will also be relaxed, allowing scheduled flights from Luton and Gatwick to cross Spain en route to Gibraltar. One rule - that any flight diverted to a Spanish airport had to fly on to a third country before reaching Gibraltar - has already been dropped.

Spain's continuing aspirations for Gibraltar are clear from the wording of the agreement: "To overcome problems of terminology ... the phrase 'fence/frontier' is used. This phrase means frontier for the UK and Gibraltar, fence for Spain."

The relaxation of rules will not mean an immediate increase in flights from Britain, according to Tim Jeans - managing director of Monarch, which currently flies from Luton to Gibraltar. "Charges at Gibraltar are too high. We switched our Manchester service to Jerez, which saves us £2,000 per round trip." He has called for the MoD to cut charges to stimulate traffic.

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