If you had ever planned an aerial invasion of Spain, last Friday would have been a good day to do it. For on that day, unannounced, Spain’s air traffic controllers decided to go on strike. At 5pm, all three hundred of those on duty called in sick. Five hundred flights were grounded; the skies remained empty for hours. Nobody in the government, the air force or the media had any prior warning. Nor did any of the 600,000 passengers who had to spend the bank holiday weekend (the most important in the Spanish calendar) sleeping on crowded airport floors with no food, no prospects of flight, and no information.
Spain’s air traffic controllers are among the least productive in Europe. The hourly cost of employing them is higher than in any other European country, and their annual salary, for which they work 32 hours per week, is €200,000. The wildcat strike was called because that salary has come down in the past year, bringing it closer to, but still higher than the European average, and because a new law prevents them from counting as working time all the many sick days they take (each controller averaged more than a day per month last summer).
Spain, as you may have noticed, is in the throes of a terrible recession (20% unemployment, frequent talk of IMF bailouts, no real sign of any let-up). Tourism is one of its biggest industries. The strike is likely to cost an economy already on its knees 400 million euros in lost revenue. And for a few hours on Friday until the army stepped in, the country’s skies were unpoliced.
The air traffic controllers nevertheless decided that this was an opportune time to take action. This now looks like a catastrophic miscalculation. Those who are struggling to feed their families are not delighted by the idea that a group earning in one year what the average Spaniard earns in ten think they are entitled to a pay increase. That that increase would come out of public funds (the industry is state-owned) when the country may be on the verge of bankruptcy does not add to the strikers’ popularity.
Fortunately, this tale of myopic greed has a happy ending. On Friday night the government declared a “state of alarm.” This placed air traffic controllers under temporary military supervision, effectively making them military personnel. If they do not perform their duties, therefore, they will be subject to the same penalties a soldier would face for disobedience. This can mean up to six years in prison. Within hours of the announcement of the state of alarm, the strike was over, as the spooked wildcats scurried back to their watchtowers. Disciplinary proceedings against them have already been opened, and the government seems determined to follow through with its threat. Hundreds of pampered air traffic controllers now face unemployment at best, imprisonment at worst. For the industry as a whole, privatisation beckons. The Spaniards I have spoken to, meanwhile, are pleased to see the spoilt brats getting their comeuppance. Many are no doubt wondering if the state of alarm can be extended to bankers.