Spain declares alert over wildcat air strike

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Spain declared a state of alert Saturday after a wildcat strike by air traffic controllers shut down the nation's skies, opening the way to criminal action.

It was the first state of alert since Spain turned into a democracy after the 1975 death of dictator General Francisco Franco.

At a crisis meeting, ministers launched 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 in a row over work hours.

A day after strikers launched their surprise action, disrupting holiday travel for a least 250,000 passengers according to airports, no planes were taking off and many airlines cancelled flights for the day.

"There are no flights. We only have transatlantic arrivals at Madrid-Barajas. They are the only flights operational," said a spokesman for Spanish airport operator AENA.

"The situation is the same in the whole country."

All flights were cancelled until at least 1pm (1200 GMT), AENA said.

But flag carrier Iberia and others airlines including Air France, KLM, Thai Airways, Spanair, Ryanair and Easyjet cancelled operations for the rest of the day.

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 douse fears of a Greek-style debt crisis, including by reforming airport work hours and partly privatising the airport operator AENA.

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.

Flight displays showed one-third of flights cancelled including to northern Spain's Bilbao, Amsterdam and Washington.

Teresa Cabezas, 6O, had been planning a four-day break in Krakow, Poland and was not sure if she would be reimbursed. "They told us the flight was cancelled and gave us claim forms," she said.

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

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

The government confirmed a ruling that the maximum time worked by air traffic controllers was 1,670 hours a year but also clarified that this total did not include 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 for air traffic controllers.

"We have reached our limit mentally with the new decree approved this morning obliging us to work more hours," spokesman Jorge Ontiveros said in an interview late Friday.

"We took the decision individually, which then spread to other colleagues who stopped work because they cannot carry on like this. In this situation we cannot control planes," 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

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