Gibraltar Airport History

A bird's-eye view of the Gibraltar Airport Runway © Michelle Chaplow
A bird's-eye view of the Gibraltar Airport Runway

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Gibraltar airport History

The runway was first established during the Second World War on the southern half of the 'neutral zone'. During the sieges  this had been an un-demarcated strip of sand on the isthmus separating the British and Spanish lines of fortifications. It was said to be the distance of a canon ball's range. In 1813 it was used by Gibraltar as a Yellow fever encampment. In 1909 the British erected a fence and gate half way along. Between the world-wars Gibraltar marked out a horse-racing track.

The runway was constructed at the begining of World War Two in 1939 by the Fleet Air Arm of the Royal Navy as an emergency aerodrome for southern Europe and north Africa. Risings from the military excavation of the tunnels inside the rock were used to improve and extend the runway during WW2. It was later extended again westwards into the bay. The first passenger terminal was constructed in 1958. The 'old' terminal was built in 1972, refurbished and extended in late eighties. This was demolished in 2014 to make room for the coach park adjacent to Winston Churchill Avenue. 

The airport was the main arrival point for the early Costa del Sol and Marbella tourists before the enlargement of Malaga airport in early 1960s.

In 1969 General Franco closed the frontier with Spain and imposed a restricted fly zone on the airspace to the north of Gibraltar, from Estepona to Tarifa. This meant that aircraft landing on the easterly runway had to do a sharp turn around and within the Bay of Algeciras, rather than overfly Spain as they had done previously. Newsreel footage shows the first passenger aircraft captain to complete this skillful arrival, being carried down aircraft steps by Gibraltarians as a hero. 

An agreement concerning Gibraltar Airport was signed in London by the Spanish Foreign Minister Francisco Fernández Ordoñez and the British Foreign Secretary Sir Geoffrey Howe, on 2 December 1987, but this was never implemented by Joe Bossano's Gibraltar Government.  Spain later successfully excluded Gibraltar from the European-wide aircraft deregulation initiatives, preventing direct airline links from Gibraltar to the rest of the European Union, except the UK.

Scheduled flights would need to divert to Tangiers in Morocco in the event of bad weather and the very occasional charter flights from Spain would perform touch and go operations at Tangiers before landing in Gibraltar.

Recent history

Following the 18 September 2006 "Cordoba Accord" between Britain, Spain and Gibraltar, a new airport agreement was established, removing the flight restrictions, and thus paving the way for the new terminals. The first flight from Madrid to Gibraltar took place on 15 December 2006 with full Spanish media interest. The flight was an Iberia A319 of 144 seats with 60 paying passengers, as well as officials who included Spanish Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, Bernardino León. This was the first time a Spanish government minister had visited Gibraltar since 1954. The officials who were met by Gibraltar's then-Chief Minister Peter Carruana and mayors from the adjoining towns of the Campo de Gibraltar. They were treated to lunch at the Rock Hotel and a tour of the Rock. A British Airways flight made the complimentary day trip to Madrid for local school children from both sides of the border.

The Iberia A319 was not the first recent flight from Spain to Gibraltar. A British aviation enthusiast had been unsuccessfully filing a flight plan from Malaga to Gibraltar ever since the accord. On 15 December it was finally accepted and he slipped into Gibraltar in a Cessna 182 ahead of the Airbus 319.

GB Airways (flying as a British Airways franchisee) began operating the route between Madrid and Gibraltar, but this was discontinued after a season. The company cited operation difficulties since the crew, based at Gatwick, had to fly the four leg route in a day. Any flight delays caused the crew to be out of hours hence the operational problems. The Iberia flights stopped after less than two years, in September 2008, the company cited low passenger volumes. Monarch operated a service to Manchester from 2003 to 2006. Air Andaluz (Andalus Lineas Aereas) also flew from Gibraltar to Madrid and to Barcelona for a year, ceasing all operations in April 2010. Monarch returned to Gibraltar and EasyJet took over the GB airways operations.  

A new 84m pound terminal was opened in 2012 on the Gibraltar side of the border. It has a design capacity of one million passengers a year. There were 445.000 passenger movements in 2015 and 548,230 in 2016.   The terminal design layout provides for passengers arriving or leaving via Spain as well as via Gibraltar, however the corresponding adjoining Spanish terminal building, foreseen in the 'Cordoba Accord' and located in La Linea was cancelled along with other infrastructure projects in the economic crisis of 2010 and has never been reinstated in subsequent state annual budgets.    

An ongoing ‘problem’ for the airport and the local and cross-border traffic has been the runway crossing Winston Churchill Avenue; the only road in and out of Gibraltar. The road is closed for 10 minutes for every flight. The solution was to build a tunnel under the runway and the site chosen was at the Eastern end.

The contract was awarded to the Spanish construction company OHL in 2008 for 30 million pounds. The works began and there were disputes over who should bear the cost of the safe environmental disposal of oil contaminated ground. The contractor pulled off site and works were stopped from 2011 to 2015. The hight court of England and Wales found in favour of Gibraltar government. Surprisingly the parties got together again and OHL resumed work in 2016. The tunnel and the road diversions named 'Kingsway' were finally opened on 31 March 2023. The present 'level crossing' continues for foot, bicycle and scooters.


During the Second World War, on 4 July 1943, a B-24 Liberator II crashed into the sea after taking off at night, killing all 11 passengers and 5 crew. Lt. Gen. Władysław Sikorski, commander-in-chief of the Polish Army and Prime Minister of the Polish government-in-exile, was on board. A British inquiry concluded that the plane's controls had jammed for an unknown reason. A propellor recovered from the plane, serves as a memorial to the incident, is now displayed at Europa Point.  

Not an incident at Gibraltar, however on February 22, 1944, a USA Air Force Douglas C-47 plane from the 313th Troop Carrier Group took off from Gibraltar at 23:00 hrs bound for England. The plane crashed into the top of Sierra de Fates, near Puerto Llano (between Tarifa and Facinas) on a night with heavy rain and low cloud. All its seven occupants; Giles G Casey (pilot), Bentley N. Schoenfeld, Anthony V. Wagner, Nelson E. Wilson, Robert N. Stronge, Wesley T. Wells y Stanley F. Kondrat from the 313 TC of the 52 wing of the USAAF died. Their bodies and personal effects were collected by Spanish regiment Alava 22 and returned to Gibraltar and repatriated to USA via France.  The 313th Troop Carrier Group had been deployed in North Africa in April 1943 and in February 1944, the group were moving to RAF Folkingham, England, to begin  training for the assault on the continent of Europe. The Douglas C-47 usually flew with four crew; pilot, co-pilot, navigator and radio operator and room for 27 troops.

On 22 May 2002, a Monarch Boeing 757-200 suffered structural damage to the nose landing gear during landing. The captain had used an incorrect landing technique which resulted in a heavy nose-wheel touchdown. No injuries or fatalities occurred. The aircraft was parked on the apron for three months whilst repairs were carried out.


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