Spain declared an unprecedented "state of alarm" on Saturday to try to end an air traffic controllers strike that has largely closed the country's air space and stranded hundreds of thousands of travellers, threatening jail terms for controllers who refuse to go back to work.
Deputy Prime Minister Alfredo Perez Rubalcaba said most Spanish airports were not up and running and apologised to irate travellers who spent Friday night sleeping at airports on what was supposed to be the start of a long holiday weekend.
Monday and Wednesday of next week are holidays in Spain, with many people planning to take Tuesday off as well. It is usually one of the busiest travel weekends of the year in Spain.
The air traffic controllers' launched their wildcat strike yesterday evening in the culmination of a long-running dispute with the government over working conditions, work schedules and benefits.
The final straw seems to have been a decree approved by the Cabinet Friday under which controllers who miss work shifts because of illness must make up those lost hours and can be subjected to medical checkups immediately if they call in sick.
The government placed Spain's air traffic control centres and towers under military control.
TV footage on Spanish television showed seas of stranded travellers wandering around Spanish airports today. The flagship carrier Iberia cancelled all its flights in Spain until early tomorrow morning. Irish airline Ryanair also cancelled all flights to and from Spain.
Speaking after an emergency Cabinet meeting on Saturday morning, Perez Rubalcaba said of the "state of alarm": "The immediate effect is that controllers have become mobilised. This means that if they do not go to work, they would incur in a crime of disobedience according to the military penal code."
The "state of alarm" clause included in Spain's 1978 constitution, passed three years after the death of longtime dictator Gen. Francisco Franco, had never been invoked until now. It was designed to help governments deal with catastrophes such as earthquakes or floods or, as in this case, the collapse of an essential public service like access to air travel.