Argentina orders military to take over air control towers

President Fernández takes action after Aerolíneas Argentina was forced to cancel all international flights last weekend

President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner on Monday ordered the military to take over air traffic control towers across Argentina after a weekend wildcat strike by air technicians caused chaos at Buenos Aires' Ezeiza international airport.

The president issued the decree after the country's largest carrier, Aerolíneas Argentina, had to cancel all of its international flights over the weekend. The Association of Aeronautical Technical Personnel (APTA) called a wildcat strike on Saturday, which the government described as "extortion" and "unjustified."

The strike was called after the APTA union refused to accept a Labor Ministry order not to walk off their jobs.

According to the transportation secretary, Juan Pablo Schiavi, union leaders want to force their way into management roles at Aerolíneas Argentina. The carrier, which used to be owned by the bankrupt Spanish travel group Marsans, was nationalized by the Fernández government in 2009.

APTA secretary general Ricardo Cirelli has vehemently denied that the union is conducting a wildcat strike. "The proof is that some Aerolíneas planes are able to operate without any problems as well as many planes from other carriers."

Cirelli, who has been at the head of APTA for the past 20 years, said Aerolíneas Argentina suffers from managerial problems and many of its jumbo jet and Airbus 340 flights are grounded because of negligence on the part of inexperienced managers.

The decree allows the military to decide whether to transfer personnel to other areas if it deems it necessary. But putting the air force inside the control towers has ignited controversy. Enrique Piñeyo, a filmmaker who is an ex-pilot, recalled that the government had to retake control of the towers from the air force in 2007 after "various dangerous charges of corruption" came to light.

Writing a column for the Buenos Aires daily Clarín, Piñeyo charged that then-Defense Minister Nilda Garré supported the air force's role even after "there were seven near-collisions supported by contrasting flight recordings." Aerolíneas Argentina "is technically broke and managed by a troika, which has little knowledge on how a plane flies," he said.

Passengers who were affected by the wildcat strike complained of the lack of information and mistreatment by airline counter staff. Many had to look for a hotel on their own and pay for food out of their own pocket, without any assurances that the airline would reimburse them.

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