Airlines struggle to clear Spanish backlog


ALTHOUGH MOST Spanish airports were getting back to normal yesterday many thousands of passengers remained stranded as airlines struggled to clear the backlog of an air traffic controllers’ strike that paralysed the country for more than two days.

The national airline Iberia cancelled all its flights over the weekend, Ryanair cancelled 450 and Easyjet more than 100, and even with the resumption of services on Saturday night many planes and crews were not where they needed to be and had to be flown in from other parts of the country. Transport and development minister José Blanco said it would take 24 to 48 hours before services returned to normal.

The wildcat strike broke out on Friday evening when Spain’s 2,400 air traffic controllers – the most privileged and highly paid in Europe – called in sick to protest at changes in their working hours. Mr Blanco described their action as inexcusable blackmail and for the first time since Gen Franco died in 1975 the government passed a state of alert and brought in the military to take over the control towers.

The traffic controllers were warned that they faced charges of sedition and military disobedience, with possible jail sentences of up to five years if they failed to report for work. The majority complied and yesterday worked under military supervision. Disciplinary investigations have been opened against 440 controllers, with possibly more to follow, said Mr Blanco. Deputy prime minister Alfredo Perez Rubalcaba said the military would stay in the control towers for at least a fortnight and that the state of alert could be prolonged if necessary.

Traffic controllers frequently call in sick, complaining of stress, causing under-staffing in the towers and serious flight delays. Mr Rubalcaba said that in future they would have to report for work to be examined by an airport doctor rather than wait at home until a doctor came to visit them.

The stoppage on Friday afternoon came as more than 250,000 travellers were preparing to leave for a long holiday weekend taking advantage of Spain’s Constitution Day today and the Immaculate Conception bank holiday on Wednesday. The strike came without warning, stranding passengers across the country.

Dublin-born Melfis Cemlyn-Jones had just checked in at Madrid airport on Friday afternoon for a flight to visit family in Lisbon. “At first they said there was a short delay, but after hanging around until 1am, they told us our flight had been cancelled and I was unlikely to get another one until at least Monday. I had to wait for another two hours to reclaim my luggage, and as I have to be back in Madrid by Wednesday, I decided to stay at home,” she said.

One luckier traveller was writer Mario Vargas Llosa who was booked on a flight to Stockholm to collect his Nobel Prize for literature at the end of the week. He and his family were fortunate to find seats on a flight yesterday.