Spanish air traffic controllers returned to work under military orders on Saturday, ending a wildcat strike after the government declared a state of alert and threatened them with jail.
The strike over working hours hit an estimated 300,000 passengers on a long holiday weekend, prompting the government to place the military in command of the skies and threaten prison for absent controllers.
“The airspace is open,” Spanish Minister of the Interior Alfredo Perez Rubalcaba told a news conference after an emergency Cabinet meeting.
Ninety percent of air traffic controllers were at their posts, a normal rate, and airport operator AENA expected flights to return to schedule within 48 hours, he said.
A state of alert will last 15 days and the government is ready to extend it if needed, Rubalcaba said.
Under a state of alert, controllers are under military command and may be charged for disobeying orders under the military penal code, punishable by prison sentences, he warned.
“The government is absolutely determined this will not happen again,” the minister said, warning that Madrid had the powers to stop the strikers over Christmas and afterwards, and it would not hesitate to use them.
“This was an extremely serious event with very damaging consequences,” he said, adding that AENA would open an investigation into any workers who failed to turn up for work without cause.
The Socialist government held an emergency meeting in the morning and declared the first state of alert since Spain turned into a democracy after the 1975 death of dictator Francisco Franco.
Within hours, take-offs and landings resumed at Madrid-Barajas, Barcelona-El Prat and other airports dotted around the country.
Iberia, Air France and KLM said they hoped to re-establish flights as early as possible yesterday.
Striking air traffic controllers were defending “intolerable privileges” that the government would not accept, said Rubalcaba, who is also a deputy prime minister.
According to the transport ministry, there are 2,300 air -traffic controllers in Spain of whom 135 earn more than 600,000 euros (US$802,000) a year and 713 between 360,000 euros and 540,000 euros a year. In February the government cut back controllers’ overtime to a maximum 80 hours a year, slicing into pay packets that had bulged with overtime pay of two to three times the normal rate of 117 euros an hour.
The strike coincided with a government ruling on Friday saying the maximum time worked by air traffic controllers is 1,670 hours a year — 32 hours a week — but that this excludes non-aeronautical work.
A spokesman for the Syndicate Union of Air Controllers said this meant time taken for paternity or sick leave would not count within the maximum working hours.
“We have reached our limit,” union spokesman Jorge Ontiveros said.