The December 2010 walkout caused massive disruption. | Reuters


Last month, there was a four-day strike by handling staff at Palma and Ibiza airports. What was new, many would have thought. Industrial action affecting air travel can seem as if it is always with us, though we tend to hear about it most when it is threatened or carried out at times of especially high demand.

This was the case in January. From the fifth to the eighth, and so over Three Kings, the two main unions - CCOO and UGT - called a strike of Iberia Air Services (IBAS) employees at a number of Spanish airports. This affected airlines within the Iberia Group - Iberia itself, Iberia Express and Air Nostrum (Iberia Regional) - and more than 400 flights. In the Balearics, inter-island flights were hit in particular, even though Iberia said that alternative arrangements had been found for some 90% of passengers.

While travellers are obviously inconvenienced, there can be sympathy for strikers. It all depends on the circumstances. With the handling strike in January, the unions' cause was less clear-cut than usual. This wasn't, for example, because of a demand for more pay and improved working conditions. It had to do with the new tender awards for handling made by the airports authority, Aena. IBAS had missed out on contract renewals, meaning that its employees will have to subrogated to winning companies, such as Groundforce, the handling division of the Mallorca-based Globalia group.

The unions weren't prepared to accept leaving the Iberia umbrella. As a solution, they argued the case for there to be self-handling, i.e. airlines directly managing services rather than contracting out, and that this should be for the whole IAG group, meaning also British Airways, Aer Lingus, Level and Vueling. Iberia said no. Self-handling would be prejudicial to overall group performance. It is too human-resource intensive and would harm the bottom line. Arrangements with IBAS had been as they were with contractors not associated with IAG.

But what were the unions really worried about? Iberia insisted that subrogation would not mean loss of jobs. It would not affect working conditions. These are governed by terms for the whole sector. For passengers who cared to consider the background to the January strike, the pretext for it didn't sound all that convincing. They were potentially being inconvenienced, but for what?

Spain's 1978 Constitution guarantees the right to strike. Article 28.2 states: "The right of workers to strike in defence of their interests is recognised. The law governing the exercise of this right shall establish the safeguards necessary to ensure the maintenance of essential public services." A decree of 2015 added certain provisions, one of which classified the failure to comply with the obligation to provide essential services in the event of a strike as "a very serious offence".

In part, this provision could be seen in light of what had happened in December 2010. On the third of that month, the Friday ahead of the two public holidays for the Constitution (the sixth) and the Immaculate Conception (the eighth), air traffic controllers walked out - they called in sick en masse - and affected some 600,000 passengers (according to certain reports). There was chaos, and the Spanish government, then socialist-led under José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, said that this sort of action must never be allowed to happen again. A state of alarm was declared, the first time ever under the Constitution, and a mechanism that has been activated on only one other occasion - the lockdown of the pandemic. The air traffic controllers, many of them in Palma, were subsequently charged with sedition.

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Public sympathy for the air traffic controllers was all but zero. The action in December 2010 was the culmination of twelve months of conflict that had sporadically affected airports like Palma. It was to do with cuts to working hours and pay, which might normally have provoked sympathy, but not when it was revealed how much they were said to be being paid - an average salary of around 400,000 euros with all the overtime; certain sources quoted as much as over 900,000 euros. Whatever the amount, it was way more than counterparts in other countries, e.g. Germany and the UK.

In general, it can be said that the right to strike is moderated by public opinion as much as it is by regulation, or the absence thereof. In Spain, there is a lack of clarity as to regulation, meaning that the courts are frequently involved, while maintenance of minimum services can vary to such an extent that 100% minimum is demanded.

Public opinion or not, disruption to essential services, especially air transport, has occurred consistently, with the public at times at a loss to appreciate the justification, such as with the IBAS strike in January. Ultimate sanctions, like a charge of sedition (now repealed and replaced by aggravated public disorder and lower sentencing tariffs), can only ever lead to the courts on account of regulatory ambiguity. And successive administrations have shied away from updating law because of the difficulty with arriving at a consensus.

In France, air travel disruption has been far greater than in Spain in recent years because of the regularity with which air traffic controllers go on strike. In November last year, one report in the Spanish press stated that since the beginning of October, French air traffic controllers had been working normally. Or rather, make that "abnormally", as they were going out on strike again, "which is their normal state".

Ryanair is one airline to have demanded action against French disruption. In October, Ryanair took its demand to Ursula von der Leyen and the European Commission. By then, there had been 64 days of air traffic control strikes in 2023. A Ryanair petition amassed signatures running into the millions.

It hasn't been as if the French authorities have been unaware of the harm caused to air travel and to France's reputation because of the repeated strike action. Two senators have therefore presented a proposal to the French Senate which would ban strikes that impact transport and tourism at certain times of the year. The meeting of French provincial presidents in March will study a proposal designed to prevent citizens from being "taken hostage".

A law to defend freedom of mobility would contemplate there being up to sixty days a year when strikes by air traffic controllers and others cannot be called. Essentially, the senators are looking to stop disruption at those times of the year when there is most travel demand. There would still be some 300 days or so not covered, but if the sixty days were specified as being times with the greatest demand, the impact of strike action would clearly be lessened.

Does this proposal have a chance of succeeding? If it looks as if it may, then one could probably predict that there will be strikes to prevent it passing into law. Might it be something that Spain would consider? Passengers affected last month and especially those caught up in the December 2010 chaos would say that Spain should. But could there ever be consensus? And just as importantly, would the Constitution permit the kind of definition that the French senators are seeking? It'll be as much a matter of constitutional debate in France as it would be in Spain.