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Passengers clog Spain’s airports as wildcat strike lifts

Hundreds of thousands of passengers packed Spain’s airports Sunday 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, whipping up the most chaotic scenes since an Icelandic volcano erupted in April and halted 100,000 flights worldwide.

Controllers had called in sick en masse on Friday, rapidly shutting down the nation’s airspace.

The government then declared a state of alert for 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 absolutely determined this will not happen again,” the minister said, warning that Madrid had the powers to stop the strikers over Christmas and afterwards, and it would not hesitate to use them.

Traffic controllers told the press 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.

Flights were running overwhelmingly on schedule but many people had to give up their long weekend plans. Monday and Wednesday are days off and many take Tuesday off too so as to have a five-day break.

At Madrid-Barajas airport, 54-year-old Miriam Mellado 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 a lot of money and do nothing,” she said.

Newspapers ran photos of military trucks parked outside the main airports and personnel distributed yellow army blankets to passengers forced to spend the night on the floor.

Dozens slept in the corners of Madrid-Barajas airport on Sunday, some lying on cardboard, others using bags as pillows.

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

Carmen Aldabaldetrecu, 34, was with her husband and two young sons, waiting for a flight to San Sebastian that had been cancelled Saturday. “It is a nightmare being in these long queues with children,” she said.

Resentment against the controllers was reflected in the press.

The front page of the centre-left El Pais splashed a photograph of an air traffic controller covering his head in his coat in an airport hotel and gesturing with two fingers at remonstrating passengers.

The conservative El Mundo daily accused the striking controllers of sedition, describing the strike by a “privileged few” as obscene and calling for their punishment with the full weight of the law.

The interior minister said the air traffic controllers were defending “intolerable privileges”.

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.

A spokesman for the Syndicate Union of Air Controllers said the ruling meant time taken for paternity or sick leave would not count within the maximum hours, and staff had been pushed to the limit.

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 airport operator 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.