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Angry passengers pack Spain's airports after wildcat strike

Hundreds of thousands of passengers inundated Spain's airports on Sunday as the military forced air traffic controllers to end a 24-hour wildcat strike with the threat of imprisonment.

Passengers wait for news about their flights

Stranded passangers will finally be able to continue with their journeys

The scene at airports throughout Spain on Sunday, December 5, was one of chaos, as thousands of passengers were still facing travel disruptions in the wake of a wildcat strike by air traffic controllers.

Spanish airspace was reopened on Sunday after the military stepped in and forced the controllers to return to work - with the threat of jail if they refused the order.

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, addng that Madrid would prevent the strikers from walking out over Christmas and afterwards.

Traffic controllers told journalists that the military compelled them to work “at gunpoint” in Palma de Mallorca control tower, but Spaniards generally showed little understanding for the strikers who earn an average of 200,000 euros ($267,000 dollars) a year.

Spanish airport authorities AENA says that 4,052 flights have been scheduled for Sunday and that of 296 controllers down to work, 286 are at their posts, enabling airports to "operate fully."

passangers at an airport

The walkout created chaos at Spanish airports

State of emergency

Handing over control of airspace to the military on Saturday, the Spanish government declared the first state of emergency since the death of dictator Francisco Franco in 1975.

Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero ordered the takeover after some 70 percent of air traffic controllers left their posts or failed to turn up for work on Friday.

The walkouts came as the country headed into one of its busiest long weekends. The coming Monday and Wednesday are state holidays and many people plan to take Tuesday off for a five-day weekend.

Blackmail

An aircraft is taking off in the cloudy sky

The government placed the military in command of the skies

The unofficial strike came just hours after the cabinet agreed to a package of changes to how the country's airports are operated. The government stipulated that the maximum time air traffic controllers could work in a year was 1,670 hours, and announced a plan to sell 49 percent of AENA. The controllers have been locked in a dispute with AENA and the Transport Ministry over the changes for months.

By putting the military in charge, the government had upped the ante. As a consequence, any air traffic controllers who failed to show up for work could have been charged and prosecuted under military law, facing up to 10 years in prison.

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


'A popular revolt'

Passengers check for information about their flights at T4 terminal of Barajas airport in Madrid

The action stranded some 250,000 passengers in Spain

Union leaders maintained they had not been striking. But Camila Cela, head of the USCA air traffic controllers' union, told Reuters that "this is a popular revolt."

Jorge Ontiveros, a spokesman for the Syndicate Union of Air Controllers, told the AFP news agency that the working hours stipulation would mean that time taken off for paternity leave or sick days would not count towards the maximum hours.

"We have reached our limit mentally with the new decree approved this morning obliging us to work more hours," he said. "We took the decision individually, which then spread to other colleagues because they cannot carry on like this. In this situation we cannot control planes," he said.

The cabinet's decision on Friday was part of an effort to rein in costs, raise money, calm the markets and avoid the kind of debt crisis that Greece and Ireland have seen in the last year.

Authors: Holly Fox, Andreas Illmer (AFP, dpa, Reuters)
Editor: Toma Tasovac

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