The wildcat action was seen as a protest by the controllers over a new working hours decision approved by the Spanish cabinet on Friday.

Spanish airports remained largely paralysed on Saturday due to an air controllers’ wildcat work action which has left more than 300,000 passengers stranded. Thousands of passengers spent the night at the airports of Madrid, Barcelona and Majorca.

The government on Friday placed air traffic under the control of the army, after the unofficial walkout by controllers protesting at new working hours. More than half of the controllers returned to the posts on Saturday, but refused to work, claiming they were ill. Airport authority AENA sent doctors to check on their health.

Passengers were advised not to go to airports until further notice. Long queues nevertheless formed at airports, but no incidents were reported.

The Spanish airline Iberia and other carriers said they expected Madrid, Barcelona and Balearic Islands airports to remain at a standstill until 7 or 8 pm (1800 or 1900 GMT). Iberia cancelled its flights until 6 am on Sunday. The airport authority AENA had earlier said airports might start functioning again at 1 pm.

Canary Islands air traffic started returning to normal, until controllers who had returned to their posts left them again under pressure from their companions, AENA said.

The wildcat action was seen as a protest by the controllers over a new working hours decision approved by the Spanish cabinet on Friday. The air controllers have been involved for months in a wage dispute with the Transportation Ministry and AENA.

Some airlines were allowing passengers to check in their luggage in preparation for flights resuming.

A few long-distance flights had landed overnight, whilst flights coming from the Americas were diverted from Madrid to the southern city of Seville or to Portugal.

The government was considering declaring a state of emergency, unprecedented since Spain became a democracy after the death of dictator Francisco Franco in 1975. That would allow for the air controllers to be arrested. They would face immediate charges and prison sentences of up to six years, Interior Minister Alfredo Perez Rubalcaba said.

Iberia pledged to return the money of stranded passengers, or to change their tickets without extra cost. Bus and train services were increased for air passengers who had intended to take national flights during the long week-end, which extends into national holidays on Monday and Wednesday.

Many of the stranded passengers expressed anger at the air controllers, whom they saw as a privileged group seeking ever better work conditions.

AENA said 70 per cent of all controllers had either left their stations or failed to turn up for work on Friday, without prior notice. Many called in to say they were sick or unable to work.

Keywords: Spainlabourairportsstrike