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Prosecutor considers trials for sedition

Government responds to controllers' claim they were marched to work at gunpoint

As something approaching normality returned to Spanish airspace on Sunday, with almost all scheduled arrivals and departures from major airports across the country met, the fallout from Friday's mass action of controllers continued apace.

Travel agency sector sources estimated that 90 percent of vacationers who had booked package tours to European cities such as London, Prague, Rome or Paris had decided to stay home after the coordinated absenteeism by around 70 percent of air traffic controllers at the 5pm shift changeover on Friday brought Spanish airports to a grinding halt. Those sources stated that "we could be talking about 100 percent in cancellations while we wait for definitive data." While also impossible to estimate, what airports' authority AENA on Friday termed an "orchestrated abandonment of posts en masse" is believed to have cost carriers up to 80 million eurosper day, and the tourist sector at large around 350 million euros, according to the Spanish National Travel Agents Association (AEDAVE).

"A person who earns 200,000 euros a year cannot resort to blackmail"

The AEDAVE figures are based on the accumulation of transport, accommodation and hospitality expenditures of the estimated 650,000 passengers stranded across Spain. "It's too early to put a figure on the cost of the disruption," an AENA spokesman said on Sunday.

The cataclysmic effect of the controllers' action was met with an iron fist by the government, which drafted Royal Decree 1673/2010, declaring a "state of alert" for the first time since the return to democracy in 1976. Invoking article 19 of the Spanish Constitution, which guarantees the right of Spaniards to circulate freely on national territory, the government gave the military the responsibility of normalizing air traffic control over the country's airspace.

Public Works Minister José Blanco announced in July as absenteeism among controllers spiraled that the armed forces would be trained to do the job and deployed in "exceptional circumstances." "The soldiers will not come tomorrow," said Blanco at the time. "But we are going to start the process and give them quick training."

The state of alert was officially rubber-stamped at 12pm on Saturday, and controllers, who had phoned in sick en masse, but many of whom were in conference at a Madrid hotel, began returning to their posts four hours later.

"I hope the lesson has been definitive for everyone," said Blanco in an interview with EL PAÍS on Sunday. "A person who earns 200,000 euros a year cannot resort to blackmail."

Neither is the government's hard-hitting response likely to be followed by the donning of a velvet glove. The state of alert is to last for 15 days, during which time there will be no negotiations with air traffic controllers or their union, USCA, and controllers will work under military supervision. Furthermore, the public prosecutor in Madrid will begin proceedings against AENA employees to determine whether those who abandoned their posts last Friday are guilty of an act of sedition under the Air Traffic Criminal Law of 1964, article 20 of which sets a sentence of up to six years in prison "for those members of air crew or staff at airports that, in sufficient number to disrupt services, collectively abandon their functions in the aircraft or airport in posture of protest."

Prime Minster José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero has remained aloof from the politically damaging state of alert, leaving Deputy Prime Minister Alfredo Pérez Rubalcaba to play hardball in front of the cameras. The government on Friday approved the sale of a 49-percent stake in AENA to raise somenine billion euros as Spain struggles to convince international speculators of it solvency. Adding to the controversy, some controllers claimed over the weekend that they were marched to their posts at gunpoint, something Rubalcaba denied in a radio interview on Sunday.

"Can you imagine a member of the Civil Guard or a soldier walking in with a gun? It's simply unthinkable," the deputy prime minister asked. "It's been very damaging for hotels, for businesses and for the country's image and somebody must take responsibility. The world has to understand this will not happen again." Lawyers representing around 2,000 of the passengers affected by the action are considering suing the controllers for 10,000 euros in damages per passenger.