MADRID — Spanish airports were back operating at normal levels Sunday after a 24-hour wildcat strike by air traffic controllers caused travel chaos for hundreds of thousands of people on one of the country's busiest holiday weekends.
The government quashed the strike Saturday, announcing an emergency measure calling on the controllers to get back to work or face the threat of jail time. Shortly after the measure was implemented, controllers started trickling back to their posts.
More than 4,000 flights were scheduled and out of 296 controllers supposed to be working, 286 were at their posts, enabling airports to "operate fully," Spain's civil aviation authority said.
The government implemented a "state of alarm," normally reserved for catastrophes such as earthquakes or floods, to get planes back in the skies and clear chaotic airports clogged with irate travelers who had seen their holiday hopes dashed by the unannounced strike.
Deputy Prime Minister Alfredo Perez Rubalcaba said the "state of alarm" will be in place for 15 days, but could be extended to include the busy Christmas period if parliament agrees.
Aena calculated more than 600,000 passengers faced travel disruptions and a backlog of flights meant that long lines of disgruntled travelers were still commonplace around the country, including Barcelona and the popular winter destination of the Canary Islands.
Rubalcaba said the traffic controllers are likely to face legal penalties for having left their posts.
"It is evident that people are going to be called to account for this. The controllers now know for sure that they are going to have to answer for their irresponsible actions," Rubalcaba said.
Rubalcaba said that Aena was planning to take action against employees who left their posts and that they could also be punished under the military penal code that came into force with the "state of alarm." He said that many travelers were also taking individual legal action against the controllers seeking damages.
Eduardo Esteban, Madrid's regional prosecutor, said in a statement Saturday that controllers would be called to testify during the week, "to evaluate if there is evidence of a crime."
Development Minister Jose Blanco, who is in charge of the country's airports, said charges were being prepared against at least 440 controllers. The penalties currently being considered, he said, include fines or firing controllers.
The controllers launched their wildcat strike in the culmination of a long-running dispute with the government over working conditions, work schedules and benefits.
Spanish air traffic controllers get triple time pay for overtime hours, for instance, and made much of their salary from this, earning an average yearly salary of euro350,000 ($463,600).
In February the government slashed their allowed overtime hours drastically, infuriating the controllers who saw their pay nearly cut in half, although that is still roughly three times what Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero makes. The average yearly salary in Spain is about euro20,000 ($26,500).
The final straw seems to have been a decree approved by the Cabinet on Friday under which controllers who miss work because of illness must make up lost hours and can be subject to medical checkups immediately if they call in sick.