Spain's military took control of the nation's airspace on Friday night after air traffic controllers staged a massive sickout that stranded hundreds of thousands of travelers on the eve of a long holiday weekend, forcing the government to shut down Madrid's big international hub and seven other airports. About six hours after the sickout started, causing total travel chaos, Deputy Prime Minister Perez Rubalcaba announced that the Defense Ministry had "taken control of air traffic in all the national territory." He said the Army's chief of staff would make all decisions relating to the organization, planning, supervision and control of air traffic.
It was not immediately clear when airports would start operating again or whether military controllers would actually guide planes in and out of airports or oversee those controllers who did not take part in the sickout. Spanish flagship carrier Iberia SA said all of its flights in and out of Madrid were suspended until at least 11 a.m. Saturday.
The controllers abandoned their posts amid a lengthy dispute over working conditions and just hours after the administration of Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero approved a package of austerity measures including a move to partially privatize airports and hand over management of Madrid and Barcelona airports to the private sector.
Spanish prosecutors said they were researching whether they could charge the controllers with crimes, and air traffic controllers meeting to plot strategy at a hotel near Madrid's airport were heckled and filmed by stranded passengers as they entered and left the building.
"To the unemployment line with you all!" one man yelled at the controllers.
Handfuls of passengers made it out of Madrid to destinations like Barcelona and Lisbon, Portugal, on buses provided by airlines. But the vast majority were forced to go home or to hotels with no information on when they might make their canceled flights. "It's a disgrace, how can a group of people be so selfish as to wreck the plans of so many people?" said dentist Marcela Vega, 35, unable to travel to Chile with her husband, 5-year-old son and baby boy.
Spain's airport authority, known as Aena, said authorities were in contact with Europe's air traffic agency, Eurocontrol, and the United State's FAA about how best to deal with arriving international flights.
Aena chief Juan Ignacio Lema called the situation created by the sickout "intolerable" and warned controllers to return to work, or face disciplinary actions or criminal charges.
"We're asking the controllers to stop blackmailing the Spanish people," Lema said.
Spain's air traffic controllers have been involved for over a year in bitter negotiations with state-owned Aena over wages, working conditions and privileges.
The dispute intensified in February when the government restricted overtime and thus cut average pay of controllers from euro350,000 ($463,610) a year to around euro200,000 ($264,920). The sickout also closed four airports in the Canary islands, a favorite winter destination in Europe, and airports in prime tourism locations of Ibiza, Palma de Mallorca and Menorca. Spanish Development Minister Jose Blanco convened an emergency meeting and his ministry issued a terse statement, saying "controllers have begun to communicate their incapacity to continue offering their services, abandoning their places of work." Blanco later told reporters that authorities were forced to close airspace around Madrid for safety reasons, but he gave no details on when the shuttered airports would reopen so flights can resume. "We won't permit this blackmail that they are using to turn citizens into hostages," Blanco said
The controllers' union has been complaining for weeks that many members have already worked their maximum hours for all of 2010, and that all 2,000 are overworked and understaffed. Friday's sickout was not expected, but the union has warned it could mount a sickout over the Christmas holiday. Spanish air traffic controllers are prohibited by law from going on strike.
Aena said 90 percent of its controllers had left their workstations or never showed up, and that only 10 controllers remained on duty at in Madrid to handle emergencies. Some controllers began to return to work late Friday, including about half of the normal staff in Barcelona, where three flights were able to take off during a 3-hour period before dawn Saturday. But Madrid's sprawling Barajas airport was still shut down. It had 1,300 flights scheduled for Friday, but it wasn't clear how many had taken off and landed before the sickout.
More than 5,000 flights were scheduled for the nation Friday, and about 3,000 departed or landed before the sickout began in the late afternoon.
Monday in a national holiday marking the Day of the Spanish Constitution, and Wednesday is a religious holiday; many Spaniards take advantage of the holidays for a five-day weekend or a week of vacation. About 4 million people had flights booked for the period in the nation of 46 million.
Many weekend Spanish sporting events were likely to be affected by air travel problems, with players for football league leader Barcelona set to travel by road and rail, while Valencia players headed by train.