Striking Spanish air controllers returning to work
Striking air traffic controllers began returning to work in Spain Saturday after the government declared a state of alert and warned of criminal prosecutions, airports said.
The wildcat strike over working hours hit an estimated 250,000 passengers on a holiday weekend, prompting the government to put the military in command of the skies and threaten prison for absent controllers.
"Controllers are returning to work at their control stations," said a spokesman for the airport operator AENA.
Half of the Spanish airspace re-opened but it would take time to restart flights because of the need to re-organise slots and advise pilots, passengers and European air safety authority Eurocontrol, he said.
The Socialist government held an emergency cabinet meeting in the morning and declared the first state of alert since Spain turned into a democracy after the 1975 death of dictator General Francisco Franco.
Ministers decided on the extraordinary measure for 15 days because almost all airports were paralysed by the action, Interior Minister Alfredo Perez Rubalcaba told reporters.
This means "controllers can be mobilised and in case they do not turn up for work they will be committing a crime of disobedience stipulated in the military penal code," said Rubalcaba, who is also deputy premier.
Rubalcaba warned earlier of serious prison sentences for strikers who defy the law.
Air traffic control was placed under the control of the country's military the previous evening by Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero after controllers called in sick en masse.
Striking air traffic controllers were defending "intolerable privileges" which the government would not accept, Rubalcaba said.
According to the transport ministry, there are 2,300 air traffic controllers in Spain of whom 135 earn more than 600,000 euros a year and 713 between 360,000 and 540,000 euros a year.
The strike was sparked by a government ruling Friday that the maximum time worked by air traffic controllers was 1,670 hours a year -- 32 hours a week -- excluding non-aeronautical work.
A spokesman for the Syndicate Union of Air Controllers said this meant time taken for paternity or sick leave would not count within the maximum working hours.
"We have reached our limit," union spokesman Jorge Ontiveros said.
A day after strikers launched their surprise action, no planes were taking off.
All Spanish flights were cancelled until at least 7pm (1800 GMT), an AENA spokesman said.
But flag carrier Iberia and many others airlines including Air France, KLM, Thai Airways, Spanair, Ryanair and Easyjet had already cancelled operations until Sunday morning at the earliest.
It is the gravest crisis in Spain's skies since Iceland's Eyjafjoell volcano erupted in April, forcing the world's biggest shutdown since World War II with 100,000 flight cancellations in two months.
The strike is also a test for Spain's government, which has vowed to cut costs so as to assuage fears of a Greek-style debt crisis, including by reforming airport work hours and partly privatising the airport operator AENA.
Next Monday and Wednesday are days off in Spain and many people will also take Tuesday off so as to have a five-day break.
At Madrid-Barajas airport, thousands of passengers spent the night sitting or lying under blankets on the airport floor. Many others were seeking refunds or flight changes.
Luis Garcia, 41, said he was trying in vain to get to Shanghai for a week-long car accessory show.
He drove from Asturias in western Spain to Madrid when a domestic flight was was cancelled but was unable to complete the next leg via Zurich. "Now I have missed the flight and the connection," he said.
The Spanish government is fighting global financial market concerns over its public debt levels.
As part of a package of measures it has also announced the sale of up to 49 percent of AENA, raising as much as nine billion euros according to Spanish media, expanding earlier plans to sell only 30 percent.
© 2010 AFP