Spain reopens airspace after controllers` strike

Spanish air traffic controllers have returned to work under military orders.

Updated: Dec 05, 2010, 09:04 AM IST

Madrid: Spanish air traffic controllers have returned to work under military orders, ending a wildcat strike after the government declared a state of alert and threatened them with jail.

The strike over working hours hit an estimated 300,000 passengers on a long holiday weekend, prompting the government to place the military in command of the skies and threaten prison for absent controllers on Saturday.

"The airspace is open," Interior Minister Alfredo Perez Rubalcaba told a news conference after an emergency cabinet meeting.

Ninety percent of air traffic controllers were at their posts, a normal rate, and airport operator AENA expected flights to return to schedule within 48 hours, he said.

A state of alert will last 15 days and the government is ready to extend it if needed, said Rubalcaba.

Under a state of alert, controllers are under military command and may be charged for disobeying orders under the military penal code, punishable by prison sentences, he warned.

"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.

"This was an extremely serious event with very damaging consequences," he said, adding that AENA would open an investigation into any workers who failed to turn up for work without cause.

The Socialist government held an emergency 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.

Within hours, take-offs and landings resumed at Madrid-Barajas, Barcelona-El Prat and other airports dotted around the country.

Iberia, Air France and KLM said they hoped to re-establish flights as early as possible on Sunday.

Striking air traffic controllers were defending "intolerable privileges" which the government would not accept, said Rubalcaba, who is also deputy prime minister.

According to the Transport Ministry, there are 2,300 air traffic controllers in Spain of whom 135 earn more than EUR 600,000 a year and 713 between EUR 360,000 and 540,000 a year.

In February, the government cut back controllers` overtime to a maximum 80 hours a year, slicing into paypackets that had bulged with overtime pay of two-three times the normal rate of EUR 117 an hour.

The strike coincided with a government ruling on Friday saying the maximum time worked by air traffic controllers is 1,670 hours a year -- 32 hours a week -- but that this excludes non-aeronautical work.

"We have reached our limit," union spokesman Jorge Ontiveros said.

But they found little sympathy among stranded passengers strewn across the floor in yellow Army blankets at Madrid airport.

Monday and Wednesday will be days off in Spain and many people were also taking Tuesday off so as to have a five-day break.

"It is not right they should be demanding wage increases when there are so many people out of work. They are privileged," said 31-year-old Nouria Sanchez waiting for her flight to Tenerife to be officially cancelled so she could demand a refund.

It was the gravest crisis in Spain`s skies since an Icelandic volcano erupted in April, forcing the world`s biggest shutdown since World War II with 100,000 flight cancellations in two months.

The strike was also 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 EUR 9 billion (USD 12 billion) according to Spanish media. Originally it planned to sell only 30 percent.

Bureau Report