'How can one little strike cause such chaos?'

At Gatwick and at Palma, passengers sleep where they can as Spanish bus drivers' dispute drags on
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The Independent Online

In Gatwick airport's over-crowded departure lounge yesterday, Lesley Kirk, a mother with two children from Northampton, said: "I can't understand how a small group of workers in Spain can cause this amount of chaos."

Yesterday, the bus drivers of the Balearic islands were striking for a second day in their attempt to force the bus companies to increase a three-year pay deal. They have been offered 15 per cent and want 17.5 per cent. In Palma, Majorca, the strike forced returning British tourists to drag their luggage along the airport road and then sleep overnight on air beds and beach mats like refugees in an internment camp.

On the busiest weekend so far in the holiday season, blessed was the returning tourist whose tour representative could commandeer a Spanish taxi with tyres that had not been punctured by nails scattered across roads by the striking bus drivers (to protect their picket lines from "scabs"). It was holiday hell for the record 8,000 holidaymakers stranded at Palma airport as well as the tens of thousands of tourists from Gatwick and Birmingham, Manchester and Glasgow, where the most unfortunate holidaymakers endured 24-hour delays and a night on an airport seat. More than 1,500 people woke up yesterday morning at a British airport when they should have been in Spain. The majority managed to snatch some sleep in an airport hotel, but at Gatwick 500 people spent the night in the departure lounge.

The news is that the strike, crippling Spain's vital tourist industry, shows every sign of growing through the summer. Bus drivers meet tomorrow to call indefinite action if their pay demand is not met. And if yesterday was anything to go by, then the misery strike action brings will not be confined just to those bound for Ibiza, Majorca and Minorca.

Ms Kirk, 39, was a victim of the knock-on effect. "We're going to Cyprus, not Majorca," she said. "But we are delayed by nine and a half hours because our plane is caught up in this, and is not where it should be. We've been here since six this morning to check-in and they tell us we won't be leaving until 6pm. And that's not even guaranteed."

The hardest part was keeping her children amused. Theresa, 11, was absorbed in her drawing ­ but it was early days. Chelsea, 6, was already bored and asking for her father ­ who was at a bar watching the French Grand Prix.

All over the lounge, middle-aged men slept, heads flung back, mouths wide open, oblivious of public address warnings to look after luggage or risk having it destroyed.

Delay explanations were disappointingly devoid of detail, even though the passengers had plenty of time to listen to more. The announcer's voice annoyed some. "The awful thing is she sounds Spanish," said Lorraine Whittaker, 40.

A West Sussex policeman, Martin George, 39, delayed by at least eight hours of his week-long holiday in Ibiza, was on the side of the workers. "From what we hear, what they are paid is ridiculous." He and his wife, Jacqui, 38, head for Spain three or four times a year. "The tour reps always ask you to tip the bus driver," said Jacqui. "They say they exist on tips."

Across the way, The Nail Shop at least was not losing money. As with all the businesses and food outlets at the airport it was doing a roaring trade. Last-minute nail extensions and pedicures, as well as calming foot massages, had never been so popular. The most anguished customers were two young hairdressers, due to fly to Majorca at 11am on Saturday, and still in the airport yesterday with a new estimated departure of 8pm. Their scheduled holiday was just six nights long.

Most delayed passengers adopted the good old British approach ­ sheer stoicism. The Nail Shop manageress, Rita Murphy, said most found having nail extensions relaxing despite the £45 price tag. She added: "Some of the customers have been very stressed by delays. One woman had one nail smudged this morning and, of course, we got it in the ear."

The tension also got to others. Alan Woods, a middle-aged Scot from Rochester, Kent, suggested the airport's police, armed with fearsome looking automatics, had been hired by his Airtours rep for protection. Mr Woods, about to try to hunt a rep down, complained that the reps had been "paralysed" by the crisis and had offered no information until he had absolutely insisted. Now there were none to be found. "They just don't treat passengers well," he said. "And they never seem to learn from the past."

Ian and Sarah Amis, due to fly to Minorca from Gatwick for a week's break with their baby son, Cameron, waited for their plane for 14 hours but then gave up and returned home. "The boarding time kept being put back further and further, and no one would tell us what was going on," said Mr Amis, 33, from Eltham, south-east London. "And no one had a clue what would happen to us at the other end ... the reps did not know what to do."

Lack of information was a common complaint. "It has been absolutely awful," said Michelle Fowler, 26, from Southend-on Sea, who was due to fly to Palma on Saturday but remained at Gatwick yesterday morning. "We feel like we have been abandoned. They haven't told us anything."

If the tourists are stressed then pity Spain's tourist industry, by far the country's greatest earner.

Some 500,000 holidaymakers were affected by the weekend's action, while a devastating blow was delivered to the reputation of one of Europe's top holiday destinations. The industry's biggest nightmare is that millions of Brits, Dutch and Germans who booked holidays in the Balearics in August will simply cancel their reservations, calculating that it is not worth the stress and uncertainty.

If the bus drivers succeed in persuading the island's 1,500 taxi drivers to stay at home in solidarity, then the island will be paralysed at the start of peak season. But the taxi drivers will take some convincing; in return for ferrying tourists in small groups to and from their hotels, they have each been earning up to £500 for a 12-hour day. Industrial strife may increase and spread and this weekend's chaos may simply be a taste of what is to come.