Air Traffic Controllers across the country failed to turn up for work on Friday afternoon, leading to chaos at airports and the complete grounding of flights at all Spanish airports. By Saturday afternoon the situation had been resolved, with the Government taking unprecedented steps not seen since the end of Franco’s rule in 1975 to ensure a return to normality. Vice-President, Alfredo Perez Rubalcaba, declared a ‘state of alarm’, not as far reaching as a ‘state of emergency’, and ordered the armed forces to oversee operations, whilst threatening to prosecute workers who refused to end the strike.
For more than 24 hours there was no movement at all at Ibiza Airport, only many disgruntled would-be passengers trying to get away for the five day ‘puente’, as there were two Bank Holidays on Monday and Wednesday, to celebrate the signing of the Constitution on 6th, and the Immaculate Conception on 8th, with many institutions not working on the middle day (Tuesday), thus making for an extra long weekend.
Two Air Force officers based in Palma arrived on the island on Saturday morning to oversee the running of the Control Tower, with only one of the three controllers at his desk, after the other two claimed they were indisposed and went to Can Misses for sick notes. Between Friday and Saturday a total of 70 flights were cancelled, affecting approximately 5,700 travellers. By Sunday morning the situation was back to normal, although preference was being given to passengers who had booked for that day. People whose flights had been cancelled on the Friday or Saturday had to take pot luck and hope there were seats available. Across Spain it was reported that as many as 250,000 people were affected by the mass walkout.
Only newspapers printed on the island were available on Saturday, although one sports paper, Marca, came to an agreement with the Diario de Ibiza to use their presses to get their paper out.
One Brazilian family, a couple with their son and dog, who were returning home, had to travel by boat to Barcelona from where they then had to drive to Milan in order to catch their flight.
The President of the Hoteliers Federation, Juanjo Riera, bemoaned the actions taken by the Air Traffic Controllers, and classified it as an ‘atrocity’, as his members had received many cancellations for the five day ‘mini-break’. Originally occupancy had not been expected to pass the 50 per cent mark in the few hotels which remained open during the winter, but because of the unofficial “strike” the final figure will be far less than this. Riera commented that he hoped this situation would not have a knock-on effect, as in future holidaymakers might choose destinations where they do not need to fly. It was very reminiscent of the Icelandic volcano ash cloud in April which adversely affected his members.
He continued that many people who have second homes on the island have not been able to travel, which equals loss of revenue for the many restaurants and shops still open. Furthermore, he finished, at international level such actions do not enhance the image of Spain in the eyes of the rest of the world.
Air traffic controllers, with overtime, can earn up to €350,000, and with unemployment sitting around the 20 per cent mark, there is little sympathy for the plight amongst members of the public.
“We have reached our limit mentally with the new decree approved this morning obliging us to work more hours,” said Jorge Ontiveros, a spokesman for the Syndicate Union of Air Controllers.
“We took the decision individually, which then spread to other colleagues who stopped work because they cannot carry on like this. Under these conditions we cannot control planes.”
Unfortunately it seems the Air Traffic Controllers may not be the only ones striking this holiday season as the major airport unions announced they were not happy about new Government proposals to part-privatise many of the country’s airports. All three of the major Unions have agreed in principal to a series of stoppages over the Christmas period, although a spokesman claimed a decision would be made at a meeting on 9th December. They apologised for any inconvenience the protests would cause travellers but claimed they were not being given any other option by Prime Minister Jose Luis Zapatero and his Government.
The protests by airport workers comes as Central Government announced plans to privatize some of the airports in Spain with the Development Minister expecting to receive several offers to participate in Ibiza Airport, which is one of the few profitable installations in the country. It is the running of services, such as bars, restaurants, shops, car parks and leisure areas in the terminals which are under offer. Bearing in mind that Ibiza is the sixth busiest airport in Spain during the summer months, it is seen as an interesting proposition. The privatization of air traffic control will need to be tackled later, but is expected to come into operation some time during 2011. It was this aspect which had angered the Controllers at the weekend; at the moment they are the highest paid operators in Europe, and do not want to lose this privilege.