Military takes over Spanish airspace from strikers

Spain's military commanded nationwide air traffic Saturday after civilian controllers called in sick en masse in a wildcat holiday-weekend strike over working hours.

Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero sent in the military Friday after controllers walked off the job, closing down airspace on the eve of a long weekend and affecting an estimated 250,000 passengers.

The defence ministry will demand that absent civilian air traffic controllers return to work, Interior Minister Alfredo Perez Rubalcaba told reporters after a crisis cabinet meeting.

Commuters wait for flights at Madrid's Bajaras airport.
Commuters wait for flights at Madrid's Bajaras airport.

The government will hold an emergency meeting Saturday morning and may call a state of alert if controllers still have not returned to work, the minister said in an update in the early hours.

"If a controller does not show up to his work place he will be placed immediately in custody accused of a crime which could mean serious prison sentences," the minister said.

Air traffic controllers started calling in sick and leaving their posts late Friday afternoon at airports around Spain.

Within hours, the shutdown had spread from Madrid and the Balearic islands to cover all of Spain except for the southern region of Andalucia, a spokesman for airport operator AENA said.

Civilian air traffic controllers at Barcelona's airport had arrived for the night shift and flights were resuming.

But staffing at other airports was varied. Five turned up for the night shift at Madrid's Barajas airport for example but they were unable to work because staff at the regional control tower refused to sign in.

Angry passengers, some shouting "shameless", crowded around airline counters at packed airports across the country.

"This is insulting. We live in a Third World country. We have incompetent controllers and an incompetent government," said 37-year-old lawyer Laura Torre stuck in Madrid while trying to reach Lanzarote with her husband.

A 24-year-old Briton, Shona Walker, said she had spent from Sunday to Wednesday unable to leave Edinburgh for Madrid because of bad weather. Now she was unable to leave Madrid to get back home. "We don't know what is going to happen," she said.

AENA, the European air safety authority Eurocontrol and the Federal Aviation Administration agreed to allow Spain-bound transatlantic flights already in the air to land but to ground those yet to take off.

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

Flag carrier Iberia had cancelled 128 flight departures from Spain by about 9:00 pm (2000 GMT) Friday and all other flights were cancelled until 11:00 am (1000 GMT) on Saturday, a spokeswoman said.

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

The government stipulated that the maximum time worked by air traffic controllers was 1,670 hours a year but said that this total did not include non-aeronautical work.

A spokesman for the Syndicate Union of Air Controllers said the rules on working hours would mean 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.

"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.

Air traffic controllers were able to ensure the safety of planes because they worked in the right conditions, he said from a Madrid hotel where about 300 controllers were meeting.

The decision on working hours was announced along with a package of measures to raise extra money for the Spanish government and calm market fears of a Greek-style debt crisis striking the country.

The government also said it would sell up to 49 percent of AENA, raising as much as nine billion euros according to Spanish media in a significant expansion of earlier plans to sell only 30 percent.

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