Spain placed striking air traffic controllers under military authority today and threatened them with jail terms in an unprecedented emergency order to get planes back in the skies and clear chaotic airports clogged with irate travellers.
Hours after the order was issued at an emergency Cabinet meeting, officials said strikers were returning to work but that it could take up to two days before flights return to normal.
Spain got the all-clear from Eurocontrol, Europe’s air traffic control agency, to reopen airspace which closed on Friday when the wildcat strike began, ruining the start of a long holiday weekend for hundreds of thousands of people.
Many travellers stood shoulder-to-shoulder at airport terminals or slept anywhere they could, including hunching over abandoned customer service desks or against luggage trolleys.
The chaos served up yet another headache for a beleaguered Socialist government writhing at the centre of Europe’s debt crisis and struggling to overcome recession as it trails badly in the polls with elections due in 2012.
A few flights have resumed at more than half a dozen airports including Madrid, Bilbao and Las Palmas in the Canary Islands, the civil aviation authority Aena said.
But development minister Jose Blanco said it will be a while before planes can start taking off and landing at normal levels in one of Europe’s top tourist destinations and a sea of stranded passengers can make new travel arrangements.
“We think that in 24 to 48 hours we can be back to normal if the air traffic controllers comply with the order and all of them work in line with their obligations,” Mr Blanco told Spanish television.
Eurocontrol and the controllers’ union USCA also said things were gradually getting back to normal after the government’s threat of jail for defiant strikers.
The crisis was reminiscent of a wildcat air traffic controllers’ strike in 1981 in the US, although the Spanish government has stopped short of simply firing controllers and breaking their union as President Ronald Reagan did at the time.
Airports in Madrid, Barcelona and elsewhere were packed on Friday night and today with bewildered travellers standing in huge crowds or sitting on check-in weighing scales, stairs or just on the floor. Police handed out blankets for a bit of comfort.
“It is very bad. Tourists from all over the world are affected,” Yair Orgler, 71, of Tel Aviv, told APTN at Madrid’s Barajas airport. “The situation is really serious. I hope it will be solved soon because we don’t know what to do.”
In announcing the approval of a “state of alarm” after the emergency Cabinet meeting, Deputy Prime Minister Alfredo Perez Rubalcaba accused air traffic controllers of “blackmailing all of our citizens”.
He apologised to angry passengers who spent Friday night sleeping at airports.
This is usually one of the busiest travel weekends of the year in Spain because Monday and Wednesday of next week are holidays, and many people plan to take Tuesday off as well.
The air traffic controllers launched their stoppage in the culmination of a long-running dispute with the government over working conditions, work schedules and benefits.
Spanish air traffic controllers get triple time pay for overtime hours, for instance, and made much of their salary from this, earning an average yearly salary of €350,000.
But in February the government slashed their allowed overtime hours drastically, infuriating the controllers who saw their pay nearly cut in half, although that is still roughly three times what Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero makes. The average yearly salary in Spain is about €20,000.
The final straw seems to have been a decree approved by the Cabinet on Friday under which controllers who miss work shifts because of illness or certain other reasons must make up lost hours and can be subject to medical check-ups immediately if they call in sick.
Mr Blanco said air traffic controllers – Spain has about 2,000 – have been counting hours spent at union meetings, for instance, as hours spent on the job and the decree passed on Friday ended this practice.
“It was a matter of clarifying what an hour of work is. That should not bother anyone,” he told Spanish television.
Mr Perez Rubalcaba said that in Spain as in other countries, air traffic controllers are a highly paid specialised group because of their unique skills, but in this case Spanish controllers are using their status to defend what he called “intolerable privileges”.
The government reacted to the strike by placing Spain’s air traffic control centres and towers under military control.
The flagship carrier Iberia said early today it had cancelled all its flights in Spain until early Sunday morning. Air France and Irish airline Ryanair also cancelled all flights to and from Spain.
Thousands of Swedish, Norwegian and Danish air passengers were forced to put their holidays on hold and wait around in airport lounges and hotels as southern-bound airlines waited for the traffic chaos in Spain to ease.
The “state of alarm” clause included in Spain’s 1978 constitution, passed three years after the death of long-time dictator General Francisco Franco, had never previously been invoked. It was designed to help governments deal with catastrophes such as earthquakes or floods or, as in this case, the collapse of an essential public service like access to air travel.