- Associated Press - Saturday, December 4, 2010

MADRID (AP) — Spain placed striking air traffic controllers under military authority Saturday and threatened them with jail terms in an unprecedented emergency order to get planes back in the skies and clear chaotic airports clogged with irate travelers.

Hours after the order was issued at an emergency Cabinet meeting, officials said strikers were returning to work, but that it could take up to two days before flights return to normal.

Spain got the all-clear from Eurocontrol, Europe’s air traffic control agency, to reopen air space closed Friday when the wildcat strike began, ruining the start of a long holiday weekend for hundreds of thousands of people.

Many travelers stood should-to-shoulder at airport terminals or slept anywhere they could, including hunching over abandoned customer service desks or against luggage carts.

The chaos served up yet another headache for a beleaguered Socialist government writhing at the center of Europe’s debt crisis and struggling to overcome recession as it trails badly in the polls with elections due in 2012.

A few flights have resumed at more than half a dozen airports including Madrid, Bilbao and Las Palmas in the Canary Islands, the civil aviation authority AENA said.

But Development Minister Jose Blanco said it will be a while before planes can start taking off and landing at normal levels in one of Europe’s top tourist destinations and a sea of stranded travelers can make new travel arrangements.

“We think that in 24 to 48 hours we can be back to normal if the air traffic controllers comply with the order and all of them work in line with their obligations,” Blanco told Spanish television. Eurocontrol and the controllers’ union USCA also said things were gradually getting back to normal after the government’s threat of jail for defiant strikers.

The crisis was reminiscent of a wildcat air traffic controllers strike in 1981 in the U.S., although the Spanish government has stopped short of simply firing controllers and breaking their union as President Ronald Reagan did at the time.

Airports in Madrid, Barcelona and elsewhere were packed Friday night and Saturday with bewildered travelers standing in huge crowds or sitting on check-in weighing scales, stairs or just on the floor. Police handed out blankets for a bit of comfort.

“It is very bad. Tourists from all over the world are affected,” Yair Orgler, 71, of Tel Aviv, told APTN at Madrid’s Barajas airport. “The situation is really serious. I hope it will be solved soon because we don’t know what to do.”

In announcing the approval of a “state of alarm” after the emergency Cabinet meeting, Deputy Prime Minister Alfredo Perez Rubalcaba accused air traffic controllers of “blackmailing all of our citizens.”

He apologized to angry travelers who spent Friday night sleeping at airports.

This is usually one of the busiest travel weekends of the year in Spain because Monday and Wednesday of next week are holidays, and many people plan to take Tuesday off as well.

The air traffic controllers launched their stoppage in the culmination of a long-running dispute with the government over working conditions, work schedules and benefits.

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