Sun, Dec 05, 2010 - Page 6 News List

Spain declares state of emergency over traffic strike

Reuters, MADRID

Hundreds of stranded passengers wait at Bilbao Airport in Spain yesterday.

Photo: EPA

Spain declared a state of emergency yesterday as a wildcat strike by air traffic controllers paralyzed airports for a second day.

Planes sat on the tarmac and passengers camped out in airports across the country as the unofficial industrial action threatened to deepen Spain’s economic problems.

The disruption is set to continue. Spanish Deputy Prime Minister Alfredo Perez Rubalcaba said Spanish airspace would not re-open until today if the situation did not return to normal.

Many airlines, including Spanish flag ship carrier Iberia and Ryanair, have already canceled flights and are making alternative arrangements for stranded passengers.

“We said that if the situation in the airports did not normalize, we would call a state of emergency. It’s clear that the situation has not normalized,” Rubalcaba said after an emergency cabinet meeting.

If the controllers — who are locked in a long-running dispute over pay and conditions with the state-run airport authority AENA — did not return to work they would be breaking the law, Rubalcaba added.

The army took over air control towers following the walkout on Friday afternoon by controllers, which quickly stopped flights in and out of Spain’s main airports, disrupting travel for around 250,000 people on one of Spain’s busiest holiday weekends.

The unofficial stoppage followed Cabinet approval of changes to rules on the number of hours air traffic controllers can work per year and of a law allowing the army to take over air space in times of emergency.

The government has also approved plans to sell off 49 percent of AENA, a move unions have condemned.

Spain is carrying out tough reforms and spending cuts to rein in its deficit, kick-start its sluggish economy and ward off market fears it may need a bailout similar to that of Ireland.

The controllers gave no warning before starting their walkout by claiming sick leave and leaving their posts, effectively closing the whole of Spanish airspace except the southern region of Andalucia.

The air traffic controllers’ union, USCA, said its workers were not on strike but had had enough. “This is a popular revolt,” USCA head Camilo Cela said.

Some international flights landed at Madrid’s Barajas airport overnight, local media reported.

Spanish Public Works Minister Jose Blanco condemned the wildcat strike as “blackmail,” and there was widespread condemnation of the controllers’ action in Spanish newspapers.

Tourism accounts for about 11 percent of Spain’s GDP and the Spanish Hotel Confederation said the disruption would lead to millions of euros in losses and damage Spain’s image as a holiday destination.

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