Air controllers shut most of Spanish airspace

3rd December 2010, Comments 0 comments

Air traffic controllers called in sick en masse and shut down flights across most of Spain on Friday in a surprise holiday-weekend blow during a row over working hours.

Airport operator AENA condemned the mass, coordinated action, saying it was an "intolerable" and "irresponsible" act which hit more than 100,000 passengers at the start of a long weekend.

It warned of disciplinary dismissals and said the action may even be considered criminal.

Controllers started calling in sick and leaving posts barely two hours into a new shift at 5:00 pm (1600 GMT) at airports around Spain, the airport operator said.

Within hours, the shutdown had spread from Madrid and the Balearic islands to cover all of Spain except for the southern region of Andalucia, a spokesman for AENA said.

Ninety percent of controllers had abandoned their work posts, and there were only three left at Madrid's Barajas airport to cope with landing aircraft, he added.

AENA, the European air safety authority Eurocontrol and US counterpart the Federal Aviation Administration were holding a conference to decide how to handle transatlantic flights.

"The intolerable attitude of controllers has led to the closure of air space of Madrid and the airports of Palma de Mallorca, Ibiza and Minorca," AENA said in a statement.

"This irresponsible decision is causing huge disruption in air traffic in the whole of Spain," it said.

"The decision to paralyse air traffic in the country is extremely serious and, as well as being extremely serious misconduct that could be punished with disciplinary dismissals of controllers who refuse to work, it constitutes a crime according to article 409 of the penal code."

It said the controllers' attitude was leading them into a blind alley, accusing them of putting themselves ahead of the rights of "hundreds of thousands of passengers" travelling this weekend.

Next Monday and Wednesday are days off in Spain and many people will also take Tuesday so as to have a five-day break.

"AENA calls for the immediate return of the controllers, restoring normal service and the abandonment of this blackmail of the Spanish people by taking citizens as hostages," the statement said.

Flag carrier Iberia said there were no take-offs from airports in Madrid, the Canary Islands and Palma de Mallorca but planes were still being allowed to land.

"We did not get any warning. They have taken us a bit by surprise so we do not know the exact number of Iberia flights that will be cancelled," said an Iberia spokeswoman.

Iberia believed the action would continue until 1:00 am (0000 GMT), she said.

It coincided with a cabinet decision Friday to change the way Spain's airports work.

The government stipulated that the maximum time worked by air traffic controllers was 1,670 hours a year but said that this total did not include non-aeronautical work.

The decision on working hours was announced along with a package of measures to raise extra money for the Spanish government and calm market fears of a Greek-style debt crisis striking the country.

The Socialist government ministers also said they would sell up to 49 percent of Spanish airport operator AENA, a significant expansion of earlier plans to sell only 30 percent.

The government may raise as much as nine billion euros from the sale of the stake in AENA, Spanish media said.

It aims to rein in the public deficit from 11.1 percent of gross domestic product last year, the third highest in the eurozone after Greece and Ireland, to 3.0 percent -- the EU limit -- by 2013.

© 2010 AFP

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