BRUSSELS: Belgian airports cancelled almost all flights on Wednesday (Feb 13) due to a national strike over pay and working conditions that halted activity at ports, hit public transport and led to blockades outside factories.
The strike, called by three unions, severely disrupted the country's public transport, particularly in Brussels, where a meeting of NATO ministers was set to take place.
The strike affected post offices, schools, hospitals, waste collection, but also companies and shopping centres.
Air traffic control body Skeyes shut Belgian airspace for 24 hours from 10pm 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.
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.
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.
"Even if the terminal will remain open, we ask all passengers not to go to the airport," said the airport in a statement.
Just one passenger flight, to Moscow, would depart late on Wednesday, with a few late arrivals and some cargo flights, Brussels Airport said.
Charleroi airport, the second largest in Belgium and a local hub for low-cost giant Ryanair, had already announced its closure.
The German carrier TUI fly will operate its scheduled Belgian flights from the nearest French and Dutch airports.
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 the country.
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.
Brussels, home to NATO, will be hosting a meeting of defence ministers that day, with officials from throughout the transatlantic military alliance converging on the city.
Dozens of supermarkets were closed, mainly in the French-speaking part of Belgium.
"Forty-four supermarkets are closed and we hope that the situation does not change during the day," said Carrefour spokesman Baptiste van Outryve to Belga news agency.
The last general strike in Belgium was in December 2014.