Sticky runway and strikes add to travel chaos in Italy

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The Independent Online
A NATIONAL strike by staff at Italy's airports and a work stoppage by taxi drivers in Rome yesterday marked the start of a week of disruption for the country's travellers.

More than 250 flights were cancelled because of the four-hour strike and many others were rescheduled or delayed. Most of the disruption was at the country's two main international airports in Rome and Milan. The airport workers are protesting over the breakdown of wage talks, the hiring of seasonal staff and what they call "difficult" working conditions at Milan's enlarged airport, Malpensa 2000.

Since its opening as northern Italy's hub two weeks ago Malpensa has become a byword for chaos. Computer problems and teething troubles have stranded thousands of passengers, luggage has been lost for days and foreign airlines are claiming damages from the airport administrators.

While the operation improved last week, the bitumen used to repave one of the runways overnight softened during the day, and the wheels of many aircraft got stuck on landing.

At Fiumicino airport in Rome, where 99 flights were cancelled, the taxi rank outside the terminal was empty as city drivers began a four-day strike, the culmination of a three-week protest over efforts to liberalise the sector.

Rome has only one taxi per 456 inhabitants, as opposed to one for every 126 residents in Paris. Efforts over several decades to increase the number of licences have failed. Not only did the drivers, the "tassisti", want to keep the numbers down, they insist on the right to pass on their licences to their sons, or, if they don't have any, to their cousins.

The Mayor of Rome, Francesco Rutelli, a former leader of the Green party, has pushed through proposals to increase the availability of taxis on the roads and introduce flexibility in shifts and fares. The 6,000 tassisti have held nine strikes in three weeks in protest and one union leader, Carlo Bologna, has said he is ready to "fight to the death so that this sector doesn't die".

Rome City Council wants to fix a maximum tariff but allow scope for individual drivers to give discounts on supplements or luggage fees and introduce pre-paid Taxicards.

It also plans to relax the current seven-and-a-half hour shifts, allowing drivers to work up to 15 hours if they wish.

The drivers have agreed to stagger shifts to provide better cover, but insist that working hours must remain the same for all and they refuse any change to the fare system - the meter starts ticking the moment they receive a call.

Yesterday 50 taxi drivers parked their vehicles around the central Piazza Venezia, adding to Rome's chronic traffic congestion.

An earlier protest turned violent, causing damage to the piazza outside the town hall designed by Michelangelo. The city council's transport manager, Walter Tocci, has been given a police escort after receiving threats.

The strike has become a political issue with the leader of the right- wing Alleanza Nazionale, Gianfranco Fini, speaking out in support of the drivers. A group of artists, actors and intellectuals has issued a public statement backing Mayor Rutelli, who also has the support of restaurant owners and retailers who say the unavailability of taxis damages business.