A wildcat strike by Spanish air traffic controllers that paralyzed Spain’s airports and stranded hundreds of thousands of travellers this past weekend deflated the tourism industry’s hopes for a big start to the holiday season. Cancelled flights led to empty hotel rooms and rippled out to the restaurants and shops that depend on tourist spending.

But while families fumed about lost holidays (it was, after all, a long holiday weekend for the majority of Spaniards), and the airline and tourism industries decried hundreds of millions of Euros in losses, there were a couple of sectors that didn’t fare so poorly. In fact, retailers saw their sales climb a modest but welcome 2% compared with the same period last year. People, it seemed, were determined to enjoy their leisure time and if they couldn’t do so at a resort then the department stores were a good alternative.

The media also saw their numbers of viewers and listeners soar as people tried desperately to understand if and when they’d be flying. The word ‘controller’ became an important Trending Topic in Twitter, with more entries than ‘Obama in Afghanistan’ or ‘Wikileaks’. One out of every 200 messages sent worldwide through this social network between Friday, December 3 and Saturday, December 4, referred to the strike. Social networks were crucial channels during the crisis; users from all across Spain uploaded their video protests on YouTube or airlines such as Vueling and Spanair contacted their clients through Twitter as their websites collapsed under the avalanche of requests.

Air traffic controllers have been grumbling about their pay and work conditions for at least a year, but didn’t become global news until they left their control towers. Media such as the Financial Times, BBC News, and Reuters have echoed the situation that Spain and its citizens lived through as air traffic came to a screeching halt.

For now people can live with the ‘state of alarm’ decreed immediately after the wildcat action, which moved the nation’s air traffic control system under military supervision. They can probably also live with the on-going political disputes over who’s to blame and what should be done. And just maybe they’ll forgive disobedient air traffic controllers, a privileged group of 2.400 people who earn an average of 300.000 Euros a year, a very handsome sum by any standards but particularly princely during recessionary times. But Spaniards won’t forgive more lost vacations.

It’s interesting to consider how this developed over Christmas, with the weather this time being the prime cause of concern for those looking to get away over the festive period. Hotels and restaurants eagerly await visitors and diners, and retailers hope shoppers will stay in the holiday spirit. Essentially it comes down to this: if the planes take off, everything else is on.

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