Spanish military takes over air traffic control after strike

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Madrid, Dec 4 (IANS/EFE) Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero’s government militarised the air traffic control system following Friday’s wildcat strike by controllers that virtually shut down Spain’s airspace.

Air force officers took over management of the control towers at 10 major airports, including those serving Madrid, Barcelona, Seville and the Canary Islands, the Spanish archipelago off the coast of West Africa.

The move, which is authorised under Spain’s Air Security Law, makes civilian controllers subject to defence ministry supervision and leaves them open to civil and criminal penalties for failing to comply with the military’s instructions.

At the same time, the Madrid regional prosecutor’s office opened a probe with an eye toward filing sedition charges against the striking controllers, an offense punishable by eight years in prison.

The controllers’ walkout caused chaos at airports across the country as some 250,000 travelers were trying to get away at the start of what is long holiday weekend in Spain.

More than 3,000 scheduled flights took off as planned before around 70 percent of the controllers on duty walked out en masse at 4 p.m., citing physical difficulties.

The walkout was unplanned and represented a “spontaneous” reaction to Friday’s approval by the Spanish Cabinet of a plan to partially privatize state aircraft-management corporation AENA, the air controllers union said.

Controllers are “very nervous” about an aspect of the plan that anticipates lengthening their shifts, a union official said.

Development Minister Jose Blanco, whose office oversees civil aviation, gave the striking controllers until 9.30 p.m. to resume work or see the defense ministry take over.

State railway operator Renfe set up a working group to arrange alternate transportation for some of the stranded air travelers.


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