MADRID (Reuters) - The Spanish army took over air control towers on Friday after unofficial strike action by controllers grounded planes and disrupted travel for around 250,000 people on one of Spain’s busiest holiday weekends.
The mass walkout by air traffic controllers, locked in a long-running dispute over pay and conditions with the state-run airport authority AENA, came hours after the government approved plans to sell off 49 percent of AENA.
The government also on Friday approved controls over the number of hours air traffic controllers can work per year and passed a law allowing the army to take over air space in times of emergency.
The controllers gave no warning before the walkout and started claiming sick leave and leaving their posts en masse around 1600 GMT, effectively closing the whole of Spanish airspace, except for Andalucia, the airport authority said.
“My plane should have taken off at 1700 and at 1745 the pilots told us we had to get off the plane because the controllers were denying them the authority to leave,” Cristina, a passenger in Madrid, told newspaper El Mundo.
Camilo Cela, head of the USCA air traffic controllers’ union, told Reuters the workers were not on strike, but that they had had enough: “This is a popular revolt.”
Air traffic controllers’ relatively high salaries and short working hours have raised hackles in the Spanish media at a time when the country is applying painful public sector pay cuts as part of austerity measures.
Flag carrier Iberia canceled all its flights from Spain until 1000 GMT Saturday morning. Vueling also said it was cancelling flights.
The travel disruption came as Spain undertakes tough reforms and spending cuts to rein in its deficit and kickstart its sluggish economy, measures designed to ward off market fears it may need a similar bail-out to Ireland.
The Spanish government described the unannounced walkout as intolerable.
“We will not allow this blackmail that uses citizens as hostages,” Jose Blanco, Minister of Public Works told a news conference.
Tourism accounts for around 11 percent of Spain’s gross domestic product (GDP).
Friday’s travel disruption would lead to millions of euros in losses for the tourist industry and would damage Spain’s image as a holiday destination, the Spanish Hotel Confederation said on Friday.
Additional reporting by Feliciano Tisera, Raquel Castillo and Emma Pinedo; editing by Jon Boyle