MADRID — Spain's military took control of the nation's airspace Friday night after air traffic controllers staged a massive sickout that stranded hundreds of thousands of travelers on the eve of a long holiday weekend, forcing the government to shut down Madrid's big international hub and seven other airports.
About six hours after the sickout started, causing total travel chaos, Deputy Prime Minister Perez Rubalcaba announced that the Defense Ministry had "taken control of air traffic in all the national territory." He said the Army's chief of staff would make all decisions relating to the organization, planning, supervision and control of air traffic.
It was not immediately clear when airports would start operating again or whether military controllers would actually guide planes in and out of airports or oversee those controllers who did not take part in the sickout. Spanish flagship carrier Iberia SA said all of its flights in and out of Madrid were suspended until at least 11 a.m. today. Spain's airport authority, known as Aena, said authorities were in contact with Europe's air traffic agency, Eurocontrol, and the United States' Federal Aviation Administration about how best to deal with arriving international flights.
The sickout also closed four airports in the Canary islands, a favorite winter destination in Europe, and airports in the tourism locations of Ibiza, Palma de Mallorca and Menorca.
The controllers abandoned their posts amid a lengthy dispute over working conditions. Spanish prosecutors said they were researching whether they could charge the controllers with crimes, and air traffic controllers meeting to plot strategy at a hotel near Madrid's airport were heckled and filmed by stranded passengers as they entered and left the building.
"To the unemployment line with you all!" one man yelled at the controllers.
Handfuls of passengers made it out of Madrid on buses provided by airlines, but the vast majority were forced to go home or to hotels.