How some people can end up living in airports for months, even years, at a time


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(CNN) – In January, local authorities arrested a 36-year-old man named Aditya Singh after spending three months living at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport. Since October, she had been staying on the safe side of the airport, relying on the kindness of strangers to buy her food, sleeping in the terminals, and using the many bathrooms. It wasn’t until an airport employee asked to see his identification that it was all over.

Singh, however, is far from the first to achieve an extended stay. After more than two decades studying the history of airports, I have come across stories of people who have managed to establish themselves in terminals for weeks, months and sometimes years.

Interestingly, however, not everyone who finds themselves living in an airport does so of their own free will.

Blend in with the crowd

Whether it’s in video games like “Airport City” or scholarships on topics like “airport planning”, I often see the trope that airports are like “mini cities.” I can see this idea germinate: airports, after all, have places of worship, surveillance, hotels, good restaurants, shops, and public transportation.

But if airports are cities, they are quite strange, since those who run the “cities” prefer that no one settle there.

However, it is possible to live in airports because they offer many of the basic comforts necessary for survival: food, water, toilets and shelter. And while airport operations don’t necessarily run 24/7, airport terminals often open very early in the morning and stay open late into the night.

Many of the facilities are so large that those determined to stay, like O’Hare’s man, can find ways to avoid detection for quite some time.

One of the ways potential airport residents avoid detection is to simply blend in with the crowd. Before the pandemic, US airports carried between 1.5 million and 2.5 million passengers on any given day.

Once the pandemic hit, the numbers dropped sharply, dropping below 100,000 during the first weeks of the crisis in the spring of 2020. In particular, the man who lived in O’Hare for just over three months came to mid-October 2020 as a passenger. the numbers were experiencing a rebound. It was discovered and detained only in late January 2021, just as passenger numbers dropped sharply after the holiday travel spikes and during the resurgence of the coronavirus.

Living in limbo

Not everyone who is sleeping in a terminal necessarily wants to be there.

Fly enough and chances are, at one point or another, you will find yourself in the category of an involuntary short-term airport resident.

While some people can book flights that require an overnight stay at the airport, others find themselves stranded at airports due to missed connections, canceled flights, or bad weather. These circumstances rarely result in more than one or two days of residence at an airport.

A person sleeps outside a restaurant above the departure hall of Haneda airport in Tokyo on March 10, 2020. - The death toll from the COVID-19 disease caused by the new coronavirus has approached 4,000, with more than 110,000 cases recorded in more than 100 countries since the The epidemic broke out in December in Wuhan, China.  It has disrupted global travel and canceled conferences and sporting events.  (Photo by Philip FONG / AFP) (Photo by PHILIP FONG / AFP via Getty Images)

Someone takes a break in the departure lounge at Tokyo Haneda Airport in March 2020.

PHILIP FONG / AFP via Getty Images

Then there are those who are unknowingly on a prolonged and indefinite stay. Perhaps the most famous unintentional long-term resident of the airport was Mehran Karimi Nasseri (pictured at the beginning of this story), whose story allegedly inspired the movie “The Terminal,” starring Tom Hanks.

Nasseri, an Iranian refugee, was en route to England via Belgium and France in 1988 when he lost documents verifying his refugee status. Without your papers, you would not be able to board your plane to England. Nor was he allowed to leave the Paris airport and enter France. She soon became an international hot potato as her case bounced among officials in England, France, and Belgium. At one point, the French authorities offered to allow him to reside in France, but Nasseri rejected the offer, allegedly because he wanted to get to his original destination, England. And so he stayed at Charles de Gaulle airport for almost 18 years. He left only in 2006, when his deteriorating health required hospitalization.

Other long-term residents of the airport include Edward Snowden, the NSA leaker, who spent more than a month at a Russian airport in 2013 before receiving asylum. And then there is the Sanjay Shah saga. Shah had traveled to England in May 2004 on a British citizen passport abroad. However, immigration officials denied him entry when it became clear that he intended to emigrate to England, not simply stay there for the few months his passport type allowed. Sent back to Kenya, Shah feared leaving the airport as he had renounced his Kenyan citizenship. He was finally able to leave after an airport residency of just over a year when British officials granted him full citizenship.
More recently, the coronavirus pandemic has created new long-term unwitting airport residents. For example, an Estonian named Roman Trofimov arrived at Manila International Airport on a flight from Bangkok on March 20, 2020. By the time of his arrival, the Philippine authorities had stopped issuing entry visas to limit the spread of Covid- 19. Trofimov spent more than 100 days at the Manila airport until Estonian embassy staff were finally able to get him a seat on a repatriation flight.
A man looks in Moscow on July 12, 2013, at a computer screen displaying a photo of fugitive United States National Security Agency (NSA) leaker Edward Snowden (C) during his meeting today with prominent activists of Russian rights and lawyers at Moscow's Sheremetyevo Airport, where it has been stuck in transit for the past three weeks.  Snowden met with a dozen Russian rights activists, lawyers and other figures today in a closed-door meeting at Moscow's Sheremetyevo airport, an official said.  AFP PHOTO / STR (photo credit should read - / AFP via Getty Images)

Fugitive US National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden (center) was trapped in transit at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport from June to August 2013.

AFP via Getty Images

The homeless find refuge

While most unwitting airport residents long to leave their temporary home, there are some who have voluntarily tried to make an airport their long-term residence. Major airports in the United States and Europe have long operated, albeit largely informally, as shelters for the homeless.

Although the homeless and the homeless have a long history in the United States, many analysts see the 1980s as a major turning point in that history, as many factors, including federal budget cuts, deinstitutionalization of the mentally ill and gentrification led to a severe crisis. increase in the number of homeless people. It is in that decade that the first stories about homeless people living in US airports can be found.

In 1986, for example, the Chicago Tribune wrote about Fred Dilsner, a 44-year-old former accountant who had been living at O’Hare in Chicago for a year. The article indicated that homeless people had started showing up at the airport in 1984, following the completion of the Chicago Transit Authority train link, which provided easy and inexpensive access. The newspaper reported that 30 to 50 people lived at the airport, but officials expected the number could rise to 200 as winter weather began.

The coronavirus pandemic has added an additional public health concern for this group of airport residents.

For the most part, airport officials have tried to help these volunteer residents. At Los Angeles International Airport, for example, officials have deployed crisis intervention teams to work to connect the homeless with housing and other services. But it is also clear that most airport officials would prefer a solution in which airports no longer function as shelters for the homeless.

Top image: A photograph from 2004 shows Mehran Karimi Nasseri checking the monitors at Charles de Gaulle Airport, where he lived for almost 18 years. (Photo by Stephane de Sakutin / AFP via Getty Images).

Janet Bednarek is a professor of history at the University of Dayton.

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