Air strike hits Spaniards' holiday weekend

Sat Dec 4, 2010 8:28am EST
 
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By Tracy Rucinski

MADRID (Reuters Life!) - Spaniards hoping to make the most of the "puente" this long pre-Christmas holiday weekend were frustrated by a wildcat strike by air traffic controllers which brought airports to a standstill.

Despite news of tax rises, austerity budgets, soaring unemployment and a euro zone crisis, most Spaniards had planned a "puente" (bridge) day between Monday's Constitution Day and Wednesday's Feast of the Immaculate Conception to create a five-day weekend of shopping, eating and visiting.

But many had their plans thrown into disarray by the unofficial industrial action. Spanish airspace was not due to reopen until Sunday morning after the government declared a state of emergency and sent in the army to staff control towers.

Deputy Prime Minister Alfredo Perez Rubalcaba said: "I reiterate the government's apologies to everyone who has had their plans drastically altered at a particularly important moment, a "puente" that many people ... had looked forward to enjoying."

Madrid hotels had been fully booked by people traveling to see the Christmas lights, take in the shows and shop, despite the government revealing a new tax rise and a speeding up of pension reforms to combat a euro zone sovereign debt crisis.

Spain's own economic problems stem from a decade-long debt-driven construction and property boom that left Spaniards in debt when the bubble burst two years ago.

The good news for the economy is that demand hasn't waned for Christmas knick-knacks from the Plaza Mayor square or discouraged queues along the busy Gran Via for lottery tickets from Dona Manolita, famous for having sold many winning numbers for the "El Gordo" Christmas draw.

The country is struggling to emerge from an 18-month recession, but the recovery has stagnated and unemployment hovers near 20 percent, the highest in the euro zone.

Spain already suffered salary cuts and VAT hikes as the government tries to rein in its public deficit, and a string of new measures, including a higher tobacco tax, were announced on Friday to stave off a bailout like in Greece and Ireland.

(Editing by Fiona Ortiz, Alexander Smith and Paul Casciato)