PALMA, Ibiza, Minorca and Madrid airports were closed last night after air traffic controllers mounted a covert strike by either abandoning their posts or failing to turn up for work claiming to be sick.
The action was staged at 5pm leading to a closure of all of the country's airspace leaving all the airports in the Balearics, the Canary Islands and Madrid closed until at least early this morning.
Spain's air traffic controllers have been involved in a long negotiation process with state-owned airport authority Aena over wages, working conditions and privileges.
The union representing air traffic controllers said in a statement two weeks ago that its members had already reached their maximum working hours for the year. The union claims Spain's roughly 2'000 air traffic controllers are overworked and understaffed and have even threatened to strike during the Christmas holiday break.
But, last night, at the start of the long bank holiday, an estimated 250'000 passengers were caught up in travel chaos and trapped at airports.
Aena was advising people not to go to the affected airports but passengers already in the terminals were complaining of a lack of information and assistance.
Ex-Irish Guardsman and Majorca resident Stan Bowles was one of the thousands hit - although it came as a double blow to him because he missed his initial flight to Gatwick on Thursday because it was closed, so, because of the lack of flights from Palma to the UK, he decided to fly via Minorca to Luton last night. His flight was due to have taken off at 9pm but at 7pm, an announcement was finally made that all flights were delayed.
Bowles was then later told that the plane he should have caught had been ordered to turn back from Minorca and he was facing the prospect of booking into a local hotel. It's a complete and total nightmare, he said by phone from Minorca airport. There's no staff, all the boards were showing delayed but no one told us anything for two hours. I just can't believe what's going on. They (the air traffic controllers) shouldn't be allowed to do this, it's criminal, he said. I guess most people on the flight live here so they can go home, but I guess I'll have to start looking for a hotel, he added. Other passengers were trapped on planes on the runway. The captain came out to say Spanish air space had suddenly shut, with no prior warning, one passenger stuck in a plane in Palma airport told national radio.
After a crisis meeting was held in Madrid last night, the President of Aena, Juan Ignacio Lerma, said that the airports had been closed for safety reasons. The government warned that should the dispute continue longer than expected, military air traffic controllers will be used.
For the latest developments see www.majorcadailybulletin.es