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Decisive action

With air traffic controllers back at their posts, an immediate overhaul of the sector is required

The 24-hour wildcat strike by air traffic controllers, which was only overcome through the application of the unprecedented measures of declaring a state of alert and sending in the military to supervise control towers, makes a complete overhaul of the sector unavoidable in the interests of long-term stability. This will not be easy. The irresponsible behavior of the controllers in abandoning their posts on the first day of the year's longest holiday weekend is as clear a signal as is needed that the government faces a group correctly labeled insensitive to the concerns of the rest of society by Deputy Prime Minister Alfredo Pérez Rubalcaba, and that can no longer be trusted to control the country's air traffic.

Bringing in the armed forces was the only way to force the hand of a highly privileged group prepared to take on the government at the expense of hundreds of thousands of unsuspecting travelers. The strike has hit the country's tourism industry- one of the few sectors of the economy showing signs of health at a time when one in five of the workforce is jobless. It has also damaged Spain's reputation abroad. The blatant disregard for the welfare of others shown by the air traffic controllers comes at a time when the country is struggling to find a way out of deep recession. This collective of little over 2,000 members has been allowed by successive governments, beginning in the days of the Popular Party (PP), to assume a dangerously large degree of power.

The gradual return to normality on Saturday evening and Sunday should not be interpreted by the government as bringing to an end a crisis that simply ruined a lot of people's holidays. As things stand, the air traffic controllers cannot be trusted: this has been brutally shown. The fines and other punishments imposed on them must be applied with absolute rigor. Furthermore, the sector must be overhauled, and the reforms outlined as far back as February, which include new working conditions and ways to reduce exorbitant salaries, must be implemented immediately.

The reforms passed by government decree in February put the air traffic controllers back under the control of AENA, the country's soon-to-be part-privatized airports authority. Under the PP they were placed under the auspices of the Transport Ministry. The reforms also aimed to break the controllers' closed shop by increasing their numbers, as well as imposing new training procedures. This is the only way to wrest power from a group that is able to hold hundreds of thousands of people hostage in pursuit of holding on to their unique privileges. Unless the government takes action during the two weeks in which the military has been tasked with overseeing air traffic control, at some point in the not-too-distant future, the controllers will strike again.

Nine months on from February's announced reforms, little has changed. It is worth asking, as the PP has done, whether the government was wise to pass another decree on Friday outlining future working conditions for the controllers, or if this could have been done before the start of a week-long holiday.

That said, there is little to justify the PP's virulent attack on the only government prepared to address a group that controls such a critical sector; particularly bearing in mind that the PP preferred to avoid the question during its two terms in office. The PP, once again, has resorted to grubby electioneering while more than half a million people were trapped in the country's airports.