Egyptian officials on Wednesday threatened to jail strikers to put an end to the labor action.

Anna Durst, 21, and her brother Thomas, 16, dashed for the Swiss Air counter after they learned Anna's Lufthansa plane back to Germany has been canceled.

"I'll try Swiss Air to go back home today or tomorrow," said Anna, a student who was visiting her brother and the rest of her family, who live in Egypt.

The slowdown by air traffic controllers entered its third day, causing up to 14-hour delays at Cairo International Airport, a key entry hub for Egypt's vital tourism industry, and other airports around the country.

Threat of prison

Aviation Minister Ahmed Shafeeq threatened to imprison strikers and hire foreign workers, saying the slowdown has caused $31 million in losses to the national carrier. Foreign airlines, suffering a spike in fuel costs as their planes circle for hours before being cleared for landing, are threatening to demand compensation.

"This is sabotage to national security and the national economy"

Abdul Fattah Badran,
senior airport official

"What the air traffic controllers are doing by delaying the flights is a violation of civil aviation law," Shafeeq told a news conference Tuesday. "Imprisonment is an obligatory punishment according to the law."

Calling the controllers' demands "unreasonable," Shafeeq said he might hire foreign air traffic controllers or Air Force controllers to "ensure traffic at a lesser cost."

Controllers' demand

The majority of Egypt's 500 air traffic controllers took part in the slowdown to demand an increase in benefits, which they say the government has curtailed.

At Cairo International, hundreds waited for delayed flights. At least three arrivals were canceled.

Flight-status screeds showed a Kenyan airlines flight for Nairobi was delayed for about 14 hours before it took off.

Other passengers were told after they checked in that their planes were delayed by 8 or 10 hours.

Ursula Zueger, 50, from Switzerland, was one of the lucky ones.

She had to take a 10- hour train from the southern city of Luxor after her Egypt Air flight to Cairo was canceled, but her flight home on Swiss Air looked as if it would take off on time.

"This doesn't worry me at all," she said.

General Abdul Fattah Badran, a senior airport official in operations, said the delays have improved from an average of eight hours on Tuesday to about four hours on Wednesday.

Three fired

Badran said three controllers, among the organizers of the slowdown, were fired for "negligence and harming national interests."

"This is sabotage to national security and the national economy," Badran said. "Measures were taken to ... return them (controllers) to their senses."

An airline security official in Sharm el-Sheik said some travelers had to return to their hotels on Tuesday because of delays. The Red Sea resort is one of Egypt's main tourist attractions.

A series of explosions in Cairo last month, where three tourists and four bombers were killed, have caused jitters in the industry, Egypt's main foreign currency earner.