Spanish air staff end strike after jail threat
Published 05/12/2010 | 05:00
Spain's air traffic controllers were marched back to work by armed military police yesterday after a sudden walkout threw much of European airspace into chaos.
Thousands of passengers were still waiting for their flights home last night after the Spanish government declared a "state of alert", giving the military the power to imprison those who refused to return to work.
It was the first time such powers had been exercised since the death of General Franco 35 years ago.
Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, Spain's socialist prime minister, described the wildcat strike by 2,400 air traffic controllers as "intolerable" and said the government could not accept "the blackmail of the public".
The sudden walkout was called after the Spanish parliament approved plans for the partial privatisation of the state airports authority, AENA.
Controllers have been involved in a year-long dispute with the government over pay and conditions, despite being the best paid in Europe with annual salaries of up to €1m.
"I cannot talk to you properly now," one air traffic controller at Madrid's Barajas Airport said by phone as he was shepherded back to work. Speaking in a half whisper, he said: "There are civil guards here, with pistols. If we don't start work we will be arrested. All my colleagues have been forced to return to work or face the consequences."
As uniformed soldiers poured into Spain's main airports, the striking controllers were told they could face up to eight years in jail for sedition unless they backed down.
Officials said 250,000 people were affected by the strike, which began on Friday and lasted almost 24 hours. After the controllers returned to work yesterday afternoon, airspace was reopened but authorities said it would take up to 48 hours to clear the backlog of delayed passengers.
Crowds of angry travellers were camped out at airports across Spain. Airlines, including Ryanair, easyJet and Iberia, have cancelled all Spanish flights until today. However, it is expected to take some time before a normal flying schedule is resumed.
Spanish airspace had been taken over by the military in response to the wildcat strikes, with the government shutting down eight airports, including Madrid.
Hundreds of Irish passengers had to cancel their flights to and from Spain, and when airspace re-opened at 4pm passengers were told to expect some delays.
All flights to Spain are expected to operate today.
Aer Lingus and Ryanair advised customers due to travel to Spain today to check the status of their flight before heading to the airport. Aer Lingus has also activated its online free change and refund request service for people whose flights have been cancelled.
Additional reporting Telegraph