How some people can end up living in airports for months, even years, at a time
Mehran Karimi Nasseri is among his belongings in a 2004 photograph taken at Charles de Gaulle Airport, where he lived for almost 18 years. Eric Fougere / VIP Images / Corbis via Getty Images 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. Blending in with the crowd Whether it’s 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 at 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 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 spring 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 Of course, not everyone 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 resident of the airport in the short term. 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. It may not be the most comfortable bed, but at least it’s inside. Boris Roessler / Picture Alliance via Getty Images Then there are those who are unknowingly on a prolonged and indefinite stay. Perhaps the most famous unwitting resident of the airport was Mehran Karimi Nasseri, 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 for 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 airport residents 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 overseas passport. 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 before Estonian embassy staff were finally able to get him a seat on a repatriation flight. [You’re smart and curious about the world. So are The Conversation’s authors and editors. You can get our highlights each weekend.] The Homeless Find Shelter While most involuntary 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 sharp 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 in 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 began. This problem has persisted into the 21st century. News from 2018 reported an increase in the number of homeless people at several large U.S. airports in recent years, including Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport and Baltimore / Washington Thurgood Marshall International Airport. 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. This article is republished on The Conversation, a non-profit news site dedicated to sharing ideas from academic experts. It was written by: Janet Bednarek, University of Dayton. Read more: How the homeless create homes In an iconic airport terminal, the last vestiges of a bygone era, Janet Bednarek does not work, consult, own shares or receive funds from any company or organization that benefits from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond his academic appointment.