In a move that feels familiar to Americans old enough to remember America’s air traffic controllers’ strike in 1981, Spain’s president sent in the military to run that nation’s airports after a sick out shut them down, stranding hundreds of thousands of travelers Friday night. Associated Press reported that Deputy Prime Minister Perez Rubalcaba announced the military’s assumption of control over all air traffic in Spain.
The controllers’ protest stemmed from dissatisfaction with working conditions, including concerns about the government’s proposal to partially privatize airports. A potential job action was anticipated over the Christmas holidays but its earlier arrival caught the Spanish government by surprise. Friday marked the start of a holiday period that includes Constitution Day on Monday and the Feast of the Immaculate Conception on Wednesday. 4 million flights were scheduled.
The tenor of the Spanish government’s response to the sick out mirrors the actions of President Reagan in 1981 when American air traffic controllers initiated a strike. Reagan ordered the 13,000 air traffic controllers who walked off the job Aug. 3 of that year to return to work and fired the approximately 11,000 who failed to do so two days later. He called in the military to assist Federal Aviation Administration officials in keeping the airports open. 7000 flights were canceled during the height of summer vacation travel.
In both cases, strikes by air traffic controllers violated the applicable nation’s laws. Spain’s air traffic controllers have repeatedly threatened to strike this year and have targeted periods of high holiday travel. In Feb., the controllers threatened to strike during the Easter holidays, and by Aug. they were eying a mid-month strike at the height of the summer holiday season. In the interim, widespread absences led to government accusations that a stealth strike was underway.
In Spain Friday, sentiments were high as epithets like “selfish” and “blackmail” were hurled. The strike prompted one frustrated traveler to yell “To the unemployment line with you all,” according to AP.
The news from Spain and its parallels with 1981 rang familiar for me. In 1981, I was due to fly home from Europe when the air traffic controller’s struck. I found out about my change in plans by happenstance when I visited an Embassy to pick up my new passport. A sign in the Embassy informed Americans of the strike and the President’s response. We were told it would be four to six weeks before we could expect to get on a flight home- six in my case, because I was traveling standby.
A flight delay of up to six weeks is logistically nightmarish. I needed to be home within a little more than a week to serve as maid of honor in my best friend’s wedding. I was determined not to let her down, air traffic controllers’ strike notwithstanding. My law school classes were set to start shortly thereafter. If that weren’t enough reason for dismay, I had run out of travel funds. It was my burden to figure out what to do and find the resources to do it. The airlines and government do not provide for or compensate travelers stranded due to air traffic control strikes.
Through sheer determination and force of personality, I talked my way onto an airplane against the odds in 1981. In today’s high security climate, it might be a lot harder to become the exception to the rule and grab that flight.
Anyone already stranded due to the Spain air traffic controllers’ strike may face difficulties similar to the ones I faced trying to return home. They may have to tap into savings not intended for travel, borrow funds, and settle for whatever lodging or meals they can arrange. It may be a scramble for them to manage their home responsibilities from afar. For them it’s too late to plan in advance.
If you’re planning holiday travel to Europe and have that luxury, consider the implications of potential travel interruptions. Extra cash and contingency planning is essential, even for those not Spain-bound. Delays in Spain’s air travel will inevitably spill over to neighboring countries. In an air traffic control strike, expect travelers stranded in Spain to travel by train to other European countries in the hopes of catching whatever flight they can back home. An abundance of patience, a sense of adventure, a tolerant workplace, a back-up plan on the home-front, and uncommitted cash would serve the Europe-bound traveler well in the event of stranding.