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Thousands stranded by air traffic control row

Thousands of air passengers faced complete travel chaos today as the country's three main airports came to a halt because of an air traffic controllers dispute.

More than 150 flights involving over 22,000 passengers were hit by the industrial action at Dublin, Cork and Shannon airports.

It follows the suspension of 15 air traffic controllers for failing to co-operate with disputed new work practices involving new technology.

The IMPACT union, representing the 300 controllers, responded by organising mandatory meetings at the airports forcing the cancellation of flights. Transatlantic stopovers in Shannon were also being affected. Aer Lingus had to cancel 64 flights while Ryanair cancelled 48.

The Irish Aviation Authority said it could not provide back-up cover as controllers were in short supply. Air controllers earn an average of €115,000 a year -- the top 10 controllers earned between €170,000 and €230,000 last year.

Passengers were being advised to contact their airline to check flight details and avail of refunds or rebook.

Transport Minister Noel Dempsey said the Government is very concerned about the serious consequences of the industrial action for both air passengers and the economy.

Mr Dempsey urged both sides to make every effort to resolve the dispute with the help of the State's industrial relations machinery.

Demanded

IMPACT assistant general secretary Michael Landers hit back at claims by the IAA and said as the core issues had been referred to the Labour Court, the IAA should not be suspending staff.

"It is not true to say that we have demanded money in return for this. What we have said is that this can be dealt with and we made proposals at the Labour Relations Commission that can be dealt with in terms of staffing numbers and maybe in terms of rosters and things like that."

But the IAA said the work practices the controllers refused to do were "normal duties" they had previously done.

It claimed the real issue was the union seeking a 6pc pay hike under Towards 2016, and the €234m pension deficit.

According to the IAA, the salary for an air traffic controller is approximately €115,000. If the pension contribution, and the PRSI contribution, made by the IAA is factored in, this total package comes to about €160,000 per year.

csheehy@herald.ie