MADRID — Spain placed striking air traffic controllers under military authority Saturday and threatened them with jail terms in an unprecedented emergency order to get planes back in the skies and clear chaotic airports clogged with irate travelers.
Hours after the order was issued at an emergency Cabinet meeting, officials said strikers were returning to work, but that it could take up to two days before flights return to normal.
Many travelers stood this weekend shoulder-to-shoulder at airport terminals or slept anywhere they could, including hunching over abandoned customer service desks or against luggage carts.
The chaos served up yet another headache for a beleaguered Socialist government writhing at the center of Europe's debt crisis and struggling to overcome recession as it trails badly in the polls with elections due in 2012.
But Development Minister Jose Blanco said it will be a while before planes can start taking off and landing at normal levels in one of Europe's top tourist destinations and a sea of stranded travelers can make new travel arrangements.
"We think that in 24 to 48 hours we can be back to normal if the air traffic controllers comply with the order and all of them work in line with their obligations," Blanco told Spanish television. Eurocontrol and the controllers' union USCA also said things were gradually getting back to normal after the government's threat of jail for defiant strikers.