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A flight information board displays cancelled flights during a strike by Belgian trade unions, at Zaventem international airport, near Brussels, Belgium, on Feb. 13, 2019.FRANCOIS LENOIR/Reuters

Belgian airports cancelled almost all flights on Wednesday as a national strike over pay and working conditions halted activity at ports, hit public transport and led to factory blockades.

Air traffic control body Skeyes shut Belgian airspace for 24 hours from 10 p.m. (2100 GMT) on Tuesday because it could not guarantee enough staff would turn up.

Belgian airspace is at a crucial intersection between major airports in London, Amsterdam, Paris and Frankfurt and is among the busiest in Europe.

Brussels Airport, the country’s busiest hub, said it had planned to handle 591 passenger and cargo departures and arrivals and that the strike would hit some 60,000 travellers.

Just one passenger flight, to Moscow, would depart late on Wednesday, with a few late arrivals and some cargo flights, Brussels Airport said.

Planes can still travel over Belgium, under guidance from Eurocontrol, but only above 24,500 feet (7,500 metres). Its operations website showed that Amsterdam’s Schiphol airport was suffering moderate to high delays due to the Belgian strike.

National rail operator SNCB said about half of its train services were running. High-speed Thalys, running to Amsterdam and Paris, said it should be running normal services, though catering might not be available on all trains. Some Eurostar trains to London were cancelled due to maintenance.

Dock workers were not loading or unloading ships in the port of Antwerp. Blockades stopped work at factories across Belgium.

Brussels’ metro, tram and bus operator ran just a handful of lines. The situation was the same in the rest of the country.

Unions are calling for wage increases, an improved work-life balance and better pensions in talks with employers. Some see the strike as political action against the centre-right federal government ahead of a parliamentary election.

Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel said talks needed to resume by Thursday and added that companies had created 219,000 jobs in the past four years thanks to the government’s policies.

Belgium’s Central Council of the Economy, composed of worker, employer and consumer representatives, has advised that the maximum pay hike for 2019 and 2020 should be 0.8 per cent. Michel’s office said that, including wage indexation, this meant an effective pay increase of up to 4.6 per cent.

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