Passengers clog Spain's airports as wildcat strike lifts

5th December 2010, Comments 0 comments

Hundreds of thousands of passengers packed Spain's airports Sunday as air services returned to normal after the military forced air traffic controllers to end a 24-hour wildcat strike under threat of jail.

Public Works Minister Jose Blanco said 97 percent of controllers who were scheduled to work had turned up and 162,000 passengers had been able to fly since the nation's airspace reopened late on Saturday.

"We are re-establishing normality bit by bit and now it is time to do justice," he told a news conference before adding that airport operator AENA had opened disciplinary proceedings against 442 controllers.

Controllers had called in sick en masse on Friday, rapidly shutting down the nation's airspace at the start of one of Spain's busiest holiday weekends in a protest over working hours and benefits.

But they returned to work after the government declared a state of alert for the first time since the death of General Francisco Franco in 1975, putting them under military command with the threat of jail terms for refusing orders.

Traffic controllers told the press that 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 (267,000 dollars) a year.

The strike hit an estimated 300,000 passengers, whipping up the most chaotic scenes since an Icelandic volcano erupted in April and halted 100,000 flights worldwide.

While airports were once again operating at normal levels, thousands of passengers still faced further delays as airlines tried to clear the backlog caused by the strike.

A total 4,000 flights were scheduled, said AENA, but many people gave up long weekend plans. Monday and Wednesday are public holidays and many Spaniards take Tuesday off too so as to have a five-day break.

Long lines formed at check-in counters and customer service desks, all merging into a crowd.

Miriam Mellado, 54, had been scheduled to leave for Rome with Iberia on Friday. She was told she could fly out Sunday but declined and joined a line of 30 people seeking a refund.

"We are no longer interested. We have to be back on Tuesday so it no longer makes sense. All this because of people who earn a lot of money and do nothing," she said.

Hundreds of people spend the night at Madrid-Barajas airport, some lying on cardboard, others on check-in weighing scales.

The army distributed over 1,000 blankets to stranded passengers at the airport, one of the busiest in Europe, as well as bottles of water.

Juan Seisdedos, 54, said he was happy to have seen an airport controller on television almost in tears as he described how shocked the staff had been when armed troops came in.

Seisdedos, whose flight to Almeria was scrapped Saturday, said he had never voted for Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero. "But in this situation he did things properly. They should all lose their jobs."

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

"The government is absolutely determined this will not happen again," he said, warning that Madrid had the powers to stop the strikers over Christmas and afterwards, and it would not hesitate to use them.

According to the transport ministry, there are 2,300 air traffic controllers in Spain earning an average of 200,000 euros a year.

The government had drastically 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.

Controllers had abandoned their posts Friday in a surprise reaction against a government ruling that their maximum work hours of 1,670 hours a year -- 32 hours a week -- exclude non-aeronautical work.

Blanco said the controllers undergoing disciplinary proceedings faced possible suspensions without pay or even dismissal.

The strike was a test for Spain's government, which vowed to cut costs so as to calm fears of a Greek-style debt crisis, including by reforming airport work hours and partly privatising AENA.

As part of a package of measures the government said it would sell up to 49 percent of AENA, raising as much as nine billion euros (12 billion dollars) according to Spanish media. Originally it planned to sell only 30 percent.

© 2010 AFP

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