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December 29, 2010 — Leave a comment

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Hundreds of thousands of passengers packed Spain’s airports yesterday as the military forced air traffic controllers to end a 24-hour wildcat strike under threat of jail.

The strike hit an estimated 300,000 passengers on a long holiday weekend. Controllers called in sick en masse on Friday, rapidly shutting down the nation’s airspace.

The government then declared a state of alert, the first time since the death of General Francisco Franco in 1975, putting controllers under military command with the menace of jail terms for refusing orders.

A state of alert will last 15 days and the government is ready to extend it if needed, Interior Minister Alfredo Perez Rubalcaba said.

“The government is determined this will not happen again,” he said.

Traffic controllers said troops forced them to work “at gunpoint” in Palma de Mallorca control tower but there was little sympathy for the staff, who earn an average 200,000 euros (HK$2.07 million) a year.

The government cut their overtime hours and pay rates in February to trim incomes which rose in some cases as high as 600,000 euros a year.



MADRID (Reuters) – Spanish airspace reopened on Saturday after a wildcat strike by air traffic controllers paralyzed airports for a second day and the government declared its first state of emergency in the post-Franco era.

Spain’s Deputy Prime Minister Alfredo Perez Rubalcaba vowed there would be no repeat of the strike, which stranded passengers, hurt companies and damaged Spain’s image.

The government is pushing through tough reforms and spending cuts to rein in a deficit and ward off market fears it may need a bailout similar to that of Ireland.

“We will not allow a repeat of a situation like this. There will not be any problems over the Christmas holidays or after the Christmas holidays. That is the government’s promise,” Rubalcaba told a press conference.

More than 90 percent of the controllers had returned to work by Saturday evening, but it could still take up to 48 hours for air traffic to return to normal after Spanish airspace was reopened during the afternoon, he added.

Spain’s Socialist government called in the army to take over control towers and threatened legal action against individual strikers who are locked in a long-running dispute over pay and conditions with the state-run airports authority AENA.

Passengers camped out in airports across the country on Saturday as the unofficial strike action caused chaos and threatened to deepen Spain’s economic problems.

“This strike was extremely serious and had very damaging consequences,” Rubalcaba said. The government has not yet worked out the financial cost of the travel chaos.

Many airlines, including Spanish flag carrier Iberia and Ryanair, canceled flights. Iberia hopes to restart most long-haul services by the end of Saturday.

The government had earlier declared a state of emergency, the first since the end of military rule with the death of General Francisco Franco in 1975.

The unofficial stoppage followed cabinet approval of changes to rules on the number of hours air traffic controllers can work per year and of a law allowing the army to take over air space in times of emergency.

Unions have also condemned plans to sell off 49 percent of AENA to raise up to 9 billion euros.


Friday’s walkout disrupted travel for some 250,000 people on one of Spain’s busiest holiday weekends.

“We arrived at the airport at seven in the morning and it was surrounded by military trucks full of soldiers and riot police. They offered to put us on the waiting list but warned us we wouldn’t be flying until Monday at the earliest,” Esther Rojas said in Madrid’s Barajas airport.

The controllers gave no warning before starting their walkout by claiming sick leave and leaving their posts, effectively closing the whole of Spanish airspace except the southern region of Andalucia.

The air traffic controllers’ union, USCA, said its workers were not on strike but had had enough. “This is a popular revolt,” USCA head Camilo Cela told Reuters.

Blanco condemned the strike as “blackmail” and there was widespread condemnation of the action in Spanish newspapers.

Tourism accounts for about 11 percent of Spain’s gross domestic product and the Spanish Hotel Confederation said the disruption would lead to millions of euros in losses and damage Spain’s image as a holiday destination.

Air traffic controllers’ relatively high salaries and short working hours have raised hackles in the Spanish media as the country is enforcing painful austerity measures.

Air traffic controllers earn more than 10 times a Spanish family’s average income of about 24,000 euros a year.