Iberia pilots' job action piles on misery at Madrid airport

14th January 2009, Comments 0 comments

Madrid's international airport for weeks has been the site of angry protests, long queues and passengers sleeping on the floor due to a job action by pilots with Spanish flag carrier Iberia.

MADRID -The airline, the market leader on travel between Europe and Latin America, says the slowdown from the pilots' work-to-rule campaign has forced it to cancel more than 500 flights and delay 5,000 others since it started on 4 December.

Union officials however blame the flight disruptions on a shortage of pilots.

At least 850,000 passengers have been affected, like Inmaculada Alvarez, whose 12-year-old son Alvaro was only able to fly to Dublin on Tuesday, four days later than planned.

She like many other people are now seeking financial compensation from Iberia.

"I have come to fill out a complaint form," she told AFP as she stood in a growing queue in front of the airline's customer care centre at Barajas, Europe's fourth busiest airport.

Aura Mosquera had a boarding pass for a flight to Caracas on Sunday but is only scheduled to make the trip to the Venezuelan capital on Wednesday despite telling Iberia that she was traveling because of a family emergency.

Her bags however had already been checked in, leaving her stranded without clothes and other belongings.

"They have to be somewhere. They sent one to Costa Rica and they have no trace of the other one," the 37-year-old told AFP.

Hundreds of passengers have had to spend the night at the airport while many others have complained of a lack of clear information about what is going on from Iberia, which is discussing a tie-up with British Airways.

Iberia says the pilots are seeking to put pressure on the airline as the two sides negotiate a new collective agreement.

But Spain's main pilots union SEPLA, which represents the majority of Iberia pilots, denies a work-to-rule campaign is under way, blaming a shortage of pilots for the wave of flight delays and cancellations.

As the delays mount, tempers have started to flare. Police were called in on Saturday to remove passengers from three flights that were canceled at the last minute.

Public Works Minister Minister Magdalena Alvarez said Sunday the government would open an investigation into Iberia's treatment of passengers who suffered delays and cancellations at the airport over the weekend.

"We have had reports of unacceptable conduct (by Iberia) toward its passengers," she told reporters.

The flight disruption has become a political issue with the main opposition Popular Party calling for Alvarez's resignation, and Socialist Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero demanding that Iberia president Fernando Conte appear before parliament to explain what has happened.

Last week Iberia announced it was claiming in court 13 million euros (17 million dollars) in damages from SEPLA which it claimes resulted from the disruption to its services between December 4 and 31.

It has also taken disciplinary action against 14 pilots over the flight disruptions.

Iberia's load factor, which measures the amount of available capacity filled, fell to 80 percent in 2008 from 81.6 percent the year before, the airline said Tuesday.

In December the load factor fell to 76.0 percent from 77.0 percent during the same month in 2007.

By Elisa Santafe


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