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March 1, 2021

Spain reopens airspace after strike

Several hundred passengers wait in a queue in front of check-in counters at Madrid-Barajas international airport in Madrid. Media reports state that most of Spain’s air traffic controllers have returned to work and airspace has reopened, after a walkout grounded flights and stranded thousands. The government had imposed emergency measures not seen since military rule ended in 1975, threatening to prosecute workers who refused to end the strike.

Earlier the government declared a state of alert allowing authorities to prosecute air traffic controllers who refuse to work. Flights to Romania resumed Saturday night.

Spain reopened its airspace Saturday after it was shut down due to a strike by air traffic controllers, the country’s airport authority said, CNN reports. The nation’s AENA airport authority said airspace was reopened after the majority of striking air traffic controllers returned to work Saturday afternoon and that conditions had returned to “normal.” A spokeswoman for the authority said that there was an adequate number of controllers at Madrid’s airport Saturday afternoon to handle 30 takeoffs and landings per hour, about a third the usual traffic.

Iberia, Spanair, KLM, Air France, Tarom, easyJet and Ryanair canceled all flights to and from Spain at least through Sunday morning, and it was unclear how the announcement of reopened airspace would affect those plans. Air traffic controllers went on strike Friday, stranding tens of thousands of travelers and prompting the Spanish government to bring in the military to control the air space.

Saturday’s declaration of a state of alert mobilizes the air traffic controllers as if in a military situation, a spokeswoman for the deputy prime minister said. Military officers at the control towers will tell the controllers that they have been mobilized, and if they decline to work, they can face charges of disobedience that carry the possibility of jail time.

Many of the stranded passengers described being stuck on planes on airport tarmacs. They included families, including some hundreds Romanians, with young children trying to set off on a vacation over the long holiday that continues in Spain through next Wednesday.

The months-long dispute between the government and the air traffic controllers over conditions and pay reached a climax around 5 p.m. Friday when controllers at airports in Madrid and Spain’s Balearic Islands in the Mediterranean walked off en masse. Just a few remained to guide some remaining planes in the air toward safe landings, officials said. The wildcat strike soon spread to most airports across the nation, affecting hundreds of flights.

AENA President Juan Ignacio Lema apologized to Spaniards for the disruptions, calling the strike an “irresponsible decision” that has “grave consequences” across the country. Spain is undergoing austerity reforms in order to avoid a bail-out package. Looking for way to cut costs, the leftist government of Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero is finding itself in the position of fighting against the air traffic control unions who oppose some of these measures, including one to allow private capital for the first time to take minority stake in airport management starting at Madrid and Barcelona airports. Friday’s decree sought to tighten control over controllers work conditions and schedules. The controllers are seen as well-paid, with great flexibility in taking time off.

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