Cathay Pacific will begin direct flights to Madrid from next summer in what analysts say is the airline throwing down the gauntlet to Middle Eastern carriers in competition for routes between Spain and Asia. The route will open up potential new onward connections to Latin America and North Africa for Hong Kong-based travellers and businesses. Madrid will be the fourth European city in the last two years added to the list of destinations on the continent served by non-stop Cathay flights from Hong Kong, following the launch of services to Manchester, Dusseldorf and Zurich. Spain’s consul general in Hong Kong, Santiago Martinez-Caro, said the consulate and businesses “all see this as a very important move for the relationship between Hong Kong and Spain”. A record number of 1,594 Spaniards are now living in Hong Kong, according to consulate figures, and bilateral trade last year reached €1.1 billion (HK$9.52 billion). Spanish soccer teams Real Madrid and Barcelona have even opened offices in the city in a bid to attract Asian fans. Analysts said the new flight route was an attempt by Cathay to exert pressure on Middle Eastern airlines with cheap airfares and a more extensive network. “Cathay Pacific seems to be changing tack and becoming more focused on being a super-connector, mounting a challenge to the likes of Emirates,” said Daniel Tsang from Hong Kong-based consultancy Aspire Aviation. Will Horton, a senior aviation analyst at the Centre for Asia-Pacific Aviation, said: “The Madrid announcement has been expected – and it’s no coincidence Hong Kong Airlines had Madrid as their first and so far only European code-share with Etihad. “The Asia-Spain market has had very limited non-stop offerings. Gulf carriers have carved a nice niche and continue to expand, including Emirates with the A380.” Horton said Hong Kong travellers could benefit from more competitive airfares. “There are already concerns about overcapacity from Spain to the East, and this could grow with Cathay, Iberia and other carriers evaluating service,” he said, referring to Spain’s flag carrier. According to Airline Route, which tracks flight schedules, Cathay will start flying four times a week to Madrid starting on June 2 next year, with the flights departing after midnight from Hong Kong for a morning arrival, followed by a midday departure from the Spanish capital on the return leg, which will land in Hong Kong at dawn. Cathay Pacific's chief executive Ivan Chu Kwok-leung said: "We are delighted to launch flights to Madrid and become the only airline to offer direct non-stop services between Hong Kong and Spain. Network expansion is part of our core strategy, underpinning our efforts to strengthen Hong Kong's position as one of the world's great international aviation hubs. We are committed to expanding our presence in Europe."