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Staff no-show hits Spain air travel
Thousands stranded as air traffic controllers stay away from work, forcing military to take control of airspace.
Last Modified: 04 Dec 2010 05:13 GMT
Travel disruptions have affected around 250,000 people [EPA]

The Spanish military has taken control of the nation's airspace after mass absentations by traffic controllers grounded planes and disrupted travel for around 250,000 people.

The controllers gave no warning before the walkout and started claiming sick leave and leaving their posts en masse around 1600 GMT on Friday, effectively closing the whole of Spanish airspace, except for Andalucia, the airport authority said.

About six hours after the nation descended into total travel chaos, Alfredo Perez Rubalcaba, the deputy prime minister, announced that the defence ministry had "taken control of air traffic in all the national territory". He said the army would make all decisions on air traffic control, organisation, planning and supervision.

If enough controllers do not show up for work on Saturday to restore normal flight operations, Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero plans to declare a national emergency that would force them to do so, Rubalcaba said.

Camilo Cela, head of the USCA air traffic controllers' union, told Reuters news agency that the workers were not on strike, but that they had had enough.

"This is a popular revolt," he said.

The mass walkout by traffic controllers, locked in a long-running dispute over pay and conditions with AENA, the state-run airport authority, came hours after the government approved plans to sell off 49 per cent of AENA.

The government on Friday also 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.

Reforms

The travel disruption came as Spain undertakes tough reforms and spending cuts to rein in its deficit and kickstart its struggling economy, measures designed to ward off market fears that it may need a similar bail-out to Ireland.

The central government in Madrid has to repay $160bn in existing debt that matures in 2011, according to treasury figures. That figure excludes the debt racked up by Spain's semi-autonomous, heavily indebted regional governments.

The Spanish government aims to rein in its public deficit from 11.1 per cent of GDP last year, the third highest in the eurozone after Greece and Ireland, to 3.0 per cent - the EU limit - by 2013.

The government meanwhile 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 per cent 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 has said.

Source:
Agencies
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