By Humphrey Carter PALMA

THE Balearics is facing the threat of 22 days of strike action by Spanish airport staff this Easter and Summer after the country's three main unions yesterday officially submitted their calendar of industrial action to central government.

Initially, the unions, angry over the government's plans to sell off 49 percent of the country's main airports, including Palma, which it says could be worth up to 30 billion euros as part of plans to reduce the national debt, threatened a one day strike on Easter Thursday.

However, as talks between union bosses and Spanish airport authority chiefs Aena have broken down, they have drawn up an alarming 22 days of industrial action which could seriously damage the country's tourist industry.

The strikes are going to be nationwide with around 12'000 Aena staff backing the protest.
By law, minimum services will have to be in force on strike days but, with airports working to maximum capacity, the industrial action is going to cause widespread chaos, in particular during Easter.

Aena staff have already apologised to the travelling public for the disruption which is going to be caused, but the unions claim that they are acting in the best interests of Aena staff and the general public.

Apart from fears that the part-privatisation of the airports will lead to thousands of job cuts, union bosses claim that airport operating costs will rise, leading to higher air fares, and the quality of services provided will suffer including safety and security. “We're not asking for better economic or labour conditions, we just want to keep our jobs,” the three main unions representing the airport workers said in a joint statement.

Central government has already given the green light for airport taxes to be increased by 25 percent and, as far as the unions are concerned, the sell off of the country's main airports will only benefit big business.

Yesterday, the government and airport authority Aena quickly responded by saying it will resume negotiations with the unions tomorrow in an attempt to reach a deal to avert industrial action.

Aena bosses said yesterday that with passenger figures up by nearly five percent on last year and with the Easter and Summer forecasts predicting a busy season, the strikes could not come at a worse moment.

Aena chairman, Juan Ignacio Lerma, said he would use all measures to avoid further strikes.
The first round of privatisations will be a batch of air traffic control towers, for which Spanish builder Ferrovial and UK air navigation service provider NATS have launched a joint bid, competing with a handful of other offers.

That sale will be followed by the privatisation of Spain's biggest airports, Madrid and Barcelona, due to be completed before the end of the first half of 2012.

But, there are also fears that as soon as the strikes hit the front pages of the European media, the damage will have been done, even if the strikes are called off.

Tourism bosses warned last week that, while bookings to Spain and the Balearics are up by 12 and 20 percent respectively on last year, the industry can not afford to get complacent because Tunisia and Egypt will embark on a major price war in order to recuperate as many lost holiday makers as possible because of the recent uprisings in both countries.

Tunisia has already begun a major advertising campaign across Europe and hoteliers have slashed their prices to lure visitors back.

While the crisis in North Africa may have initially played into the hands of Spain and the Balearics, headlines reporting strike action across Spain this summer, may end up throwing Tunisia and Egypt a lifeline.

Hundreds of thousands of air passengers still have the chaos caused by the December 3 covert strike by air traffic controllers fresh in their minds and many will not want to run the risk of having their Easter and Summer holiday plans ruined again.

The Balearic Minister for Transport and Environment, Gabriel Vicens, yesterday called for “maximum responsibility” from all parties involved in the dispute. “These strikes could seriously damage the Balearic economy,” he stressed. “Especially as they come at a time when the tourist industry, which is recovering from the crisis, is already having to cope with rising fuel prices.” That said, Vicens did admit that he can understand the concerns of Aena employees about their future.
The Minister said that the government first announced that only 30 percent of Aena would be sold off, then the bar was raised to 49 percent and not even the Balearic government approves of the way in which the government intends to part privatise the airports.

The Balearics has been fighting for years for the local government, business, tourism industry and commerce to have a role in the management of the region's airports and this is what the Balearics still wants - a more flexible model in which local entities will have a role.