Terminal blues: What it's like to live in an airport

This week it was revealed that a German woman has spent a decade living in Palma's main terminal. But what would it be like to live in an airport? Is it a des-res with multiple bathrooms and ample parking? Or hell on earth? Tom Mitchelson spent three days (and nights) at Gatwick – and wonders how she does it
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I'm huddled on a hard plastic bench. Harsh fluorescent lights beat down on me. Armed police patrol nearby. I haven't slept for three days and I'm so bored I'm having hallucinations. This is not life on the street. This is life in a big, centrally-heated, windowless cube. I am living in the South Terminal of London's Gatwick Airport.

I'm following in the footsteps of a homeless and unemployed 48-year-old German woman known simply as "Bettina". She's been living in Mallorca's Palma airport for 10 years, pushing around three suitcases, a blanket, a pile of books and her white cat Mumu. Bettina told a local newspaper she'd arrived in Mallorca over a decade ago looking for a new start after a relationship ended and she lost her office job. After a short spell waiting tables, Bettina's work dried up and she found herself with no job, no home and no money. Her only choice, she says, was to live in the airport.

Luckily for Bettina, Spanish authorities tend to turn a blind eye to people living in the terminal, as long as they don't bother passengers. Other airport dwellers aren't so lucky. Briton Anthony Delaney made headlines in February when he defied an ASBO banning him from living in Gatwick airport – his home for three years.

Bettina and Anthony are by no means alone with their unconventional choice of home. It's thought that around 110 people live at Heathrow airport and more than 20 people at Gatwick. That's not counting the hundreds of people stranded in departures overnight by delayed or missed flights. I decided to see for myself what airport life was like. It can't be easy living in 24-hour fluorescent light with constant tannoy announcements. If I like it, however, I could wave goodbye to paying council tax, electricity bills and rent.

I'm planning to spend three days and, more importantly, three nights living in what an estate agent might describe as a spacious, two-storey building with multiple bathrooms, central heating ... and plenty of parking space. There's also a unique feature: shops, bars and restaurants not just on your doorstep, but actually inside your home.

When I arrive, I discover it's not possible to set up a camp. You can't establish permanent ownership of the benches in the airport and as soon as you move, someone takes your seat. Of course, there are to be no bags left unattended, for obvious reasons, and there is a constant loudspeaker announcement that won't let you forget it. "Keep your belongings with you at all times" quickly becomes my mantra.

Thankfully, I don't have too much stuff with me, certainly not enough to sustain an entire life. How on earth do people cope, carrying it all around? Perhaps that's why airports are introducing charging for trolleys... Happily I don't need one, all I've brought with me is a change of clothes, a couple of books, toothbrush and toothpaste, a hairbrush, my favourite mug and a sleeping bag.

I've always felt I could cope with being marooned on a desert island, or do a stretch in prison (wrongly accused, of course) and maintain my sanity. Here it is no different. I will get my head down and do my time. It won't, however, be pleasant. Firstly, all the shops are aimed at holidaymakers. It sounds obvious, but it's a real barrier to living a normal life. There's even a luggage shop, presumably for people who turn up for their holiday with all their possessions in their arms and nothing to put them in. I decide not to dwell on how these folk would have got to the airport in the first place.

After a couple of hours of exploring the airport, I take a seat in a comfortable armchair. Placing my bag at my feet, I put my coat over the arm of the seat and take out my books and cup to personalise my space. The world slips by unnoticed and unmourned. Life in the airport seems a tranquil existence. I even have an afternoon nap. I'm jolted back to reality by a screaming toddler throwing biscuits into my territory. Rather than face a confrontation, I get up and go to the lavatory, packing up my coat, cup, book and bag.

When I return the child's mother has moved into my armchair. Even worse, if I should ever get it back, the child is dribbling blackcurrant on to the cushions. I retreat to an amusement arcade to kill some time trying to capture a garish, nylon teddy bear from a Perspex cage using a remote metal claw. I fail.

Dinner is a pizza, a pudding and a couple of glasses of wine from Pizza Express in the arrivals hall. I'm feeling relaxed when I notice, although it's only 8.30pm, the waitress is setting up tables for breakfast.

I was hoping to be able to linger here for an hour or so, but my server wants me to go home. But, of course, I already am home. I pay the £24 bill and wonder how the 20 other people who live here manage financially. They can't eat out every night and there are no kitchens or cooking facilities to use. Anyone who's visited an airport in the past couple of years will be only too aware how overpriced everything is – from a cup of tea to a sandwich or bottle of water.

It's 10 o'clock, the shops are closed, but it's too early for me to sleep and I wander aimlessly, observing my housemates. I part with £1 to rent a computer for 10 minutes to surf the internet. The first two attempts fail and, eventually, getting 10 minutes costs me £3.

At 11pm, I go looking for a place to bed down. Outbound flights are finished but there still looks to be about 50 people milling around the check-in area.

I speak to an elderly couple going to Jamaica on a flight leaving in 10 hours. They've opted for a night in the terminal sitting up drinking tea rather than getting an early morning taxi. I remark that it's a long wait.

"Not really, we can check in at 4am," the man barks, apparently irritated by my question. "Where are you going, you're waiting too?"

"No I'm not." I say. "I live here". The man looks back at me, quizzically.

I'd planned to sleep on one of the flat, padded benches on the concourse tonight, but by the time I get there, they're all taken. Everywhere else looks uncomfortable. Some people have moved into a 24-hour café and I notice one unoccupied bench. I run towards it, spread out all my belongings and order a hot chocolate so they don't think I'm taking advantage. The man behind the counter asks if I'll be taking the drink away or paying extra to consume it on the premises. I think it's worth the extra 15p for a night's accommodation.

The warm, milky drink lulls me into a half-sleep, disturbed only by a constant rumble of trolleys replenishing stock for the various surrounding businesses. At about 2am, the cafe staff decide it's time for the clientele to wake up. Indian music blasts out. I ignore it, continuing to lie on the bench with my eyes closed, allowing my mind to drift. Images of flights to Jamaica or Rome come into my head and it occurs that although I'm in a kind of prison living in this airport at the moment, I have a key. Or at least I have a passport and credit card, which would open the doors. The full-time residents are not so lucky.

I'm now fully awake, and might as well go to find the shower. There's a phone on the door to call the attendant who brings soap and a towel. This, together with the hot water, costs me another £1. She arrives looking apologetic, "I'm sorry there's no soap." There was no refund either, although I did ask.

It's good to have some privacy. The shower is hot and powerful and I step out feeling refreshed to face the new day. However, at 4.38am, I think I may have gotten up too early.

I've now been at the airport nearly 24 hours, and the main trouble is, there's really not a lot to do. I return to the amusement arcade and renew my efforts to win the teddy bear. After 45 unsuccessful minutes, and a small fortune in coins, the shops are opening and I go to inspect any new stock. The only things to have changed are the newspapers. I buy one and go for breakfast.

I enquire whether I can have my drink in my own mug and put it on the counter. "Who will wash this thing?" the assistant says. "I can take care of that," I tell her confidently. Lots of food and drink is simply abandoned around the airport. I wonder if this is what helped Delaney survive his three years in the terminal. A woman leaves an untouched scone on her plate. Making sure she's gone, I surreptitiously slip it into my pocket. It's my attempt at economising.

Buying meals, coffees and entertaining myself with the teddy bear machine is getting expensive.

I catch the free transfer shuttle to the North Terminal. It's even less exciting than the South. It has a few different shops, and in my current state of ennui, it provides a huge wave of enjoyment. I look at CDs, gift items and women's shoes. I buy a banana.

The North Terminal appears to be slightly more glamorous, with business travellers taking intercontinental flights, and I briefly consider moving. I do have all my stuff with me after all. But a scarcity of comfortable seating persuades me to return. Nevertheless, seeing daylight from the shuttle has been good.

Once back inside the South Terminal's windowless environment it is as if time has ceased to exist. Perhaps that is the point. If time ceases to exist, delayed airline passengers have less opportunity to become disgruntled about how long they have been sat waiting.

I read my book, easily passing a couple of hours. My eyes are drooping due to lack of sleep. I've only been here one day and the hours stretch ahead like a tunnel under a mountain. I get up in the hope that exercise will enliven me. In the absence of a gym I opt for jogging along a moving walkway in the wrong direction. This annoys people and I have to stop. Anyway, my bag was proving too much of an encumbrance.

Instead, and for the fourth time, I visit a shop that sells women's accessories. I'm developing a strong interest in bangles. The shop assistant asks me if I need any help. "No, just looking," I say and hurry out. I roam around the rest of the emporia in a daze. There must be more to life than this.

I've hardly spoken to anyone and feel an urge for human interaction. I chat to a girl in a watch shop. The conversation goes well until she innocently asks me, "Where are you flying to?"

I stare at her. "Nowhere", I say, "Just hanging out". This brings our chat to an abrupt close and she busies herself with the stock. In future I shall say, "Iceland, on business."

I thumb through the magazines in Smith's before catching the shuttle again to the North Terminal to see if anything has changed. It hasn't. I read my book, have a drink in a bar and eat the scone from the morning.

There's a hotel attached to the terminal and I'm tempted to book a room and sleep. Unfortunately, if I am to experience Bettina and Mr Delaney's lifestyle, I must stick it out.

But as I pace up and down the confines of the shopping mall, I feel like a caged animal. There's a danger, if I stay too long, I'll become feral, like the wild man of the woods, and someone will have to put me out of my misery.

It doesn't seem possible to be lonely in the second-busiest airport in Britain, but that's how I feel. I spend the rest of the afternoon ringing my friends and interrupting their working days. Once I've exhausted that, I ring people I know less well and pretend I'm just calling to catch up.

Dinner is burger and chips. It is inedible. So I leave it on the table for whatever fellow terminal resident comes along. I haven't noticed anyone living here, but I suppose that's the key. Airports are so busy, you rarely get chance to notice who is loitering. I turn my attention to the football on a TV screen. I don't like football that much, but it's reassuring to see something happening in the real world.

I have to find somewhere to sleep. A friend suggested the disabled toilets, which are spacious and private. I reject this because I'm afraid I'll wake up to a queue of irate wheelchair users.

Perched on a hard seat I drift off intermittently. Although it's noisy, the airport feels safe, it's probably a lot safer than sleeping on the streets. However, the harsh florescent lights beat down continually. Here, there is just day. Eternal day. I long for the darkness.

Morning has broken. I buy a razor to shave in the toilets and a disgruntled panda stares back from the mirror. I'm annoyed that other people are in my bathroom, treating my home like a hotel. I shower but it doesn't have the same invigorating effect today. The novelty has washed off.

It's been 48 hours and I'm getting curious looks from airport staff who may have begun to recognise me. I duck into the accessory shop and sort through the bangles again. The shop assistant asks me, "Are you going to buy anything?"

"Not today," I reply. "Maybe tomorrow."

Later in Boots, a customer asks the assistant, "Where is the deodorant?"

"Second aisle on the left," I tell her in a flash.

The day edges by in a blur of monotony. I'm so tired I fall asleep on the shuttle on my fourth or fifth trip to the North Terminal. I no longer know what I'm hoping to find when I get there, but it gives me some sort of purpose. I mouth along with the announcements because by now they have carved themselves new neural pathways in my brain.

It's hard to focus on the silver claw when I try to win the elusive teddy again. I want it more than anything now. I spend an hour without success. I'm beginning to suspect it might be a rip off.

Much of my time is spent daydreaming. The lack of sleep is almost painful and another night of hell lies ahead. As I drift in and out of consciousness, lying on the uncomfortable hard airport bench, I know I can't take any more and decide to catch the first train in the morning. If I stay here, I feel sure I'll snap.

Had I stayed longer the staff would have noticed me and the quizzical looks I received would have given way to difficult questions. When I get home to my flat and close the door behind me, I feel overwhelming relief.

How do Bettina, Anthony and the doubtless thousands of other airport dwellers the world over do it? I admire their stamina. It may be safe and relatively secure sleeping in an airport, but any more than a few hours here would be enough to send me around the bend. The constant deprivation of darkness is a form of torture.

One thing's for certain, next time I'm at an airport I'll make sure I'm going somewhere.

The airports that make you pray for a delay
By Simon Calder

"You can check out anytime you like/ but you can never leave..." Suppose you found yourself, as in The Eagles' "Hotel California", lost in transit. These are the optimum airports in which to face an indefinite delay.



Singapore

Charge up my credit card, and leave me to roam the world's favourite airport. The hub that puts the "Changi" in changing planes is one of very few places that you are always pleased to see in your schedule. Should you be facing an indeterminate future, at least you can choose from 160 shops, 300 free internet terminals, and eat your way around the world from Sudan to Japan – not forgetting the rooftop sunflower garden. Keep your swimsuit handy: on the roof of Terminal 1 you can walk through a cactus garden, drink at an open-air bar and take a swim. Oh, and I suppose you could catch a plane. About the one thing you can't do in the airport city known as SIN is, well, sin.



Gibraltar

The only problem with the airport in the shadow of the Rock is that the connection opportunities are limited; the 15-minute hop to Tangier in Morocco has been shelved. In terms of scenic and geo-political interest, nowhere can match Gibraltar: the runway slots itself on the isthmus between Spain and the heart of this British territory, and is converted to the main road twixt the two between flights.



Dubai

The planet's most ambitious airport – all six runways of it – is being constructed in the desert. The world's biggest order of the world's biggest plane, the Airbus A380, is destined for Emirates – the airline soon to become people-carrier par excellence. Meanwhile, Dubai's existing airport is increasingly frantic. But as babies just arrived from Buenos Aires mix with biddies bound for Bangalore, you can usually find a corner to bed down or a curry to devour. Possibly the most proletarian that any airport this side of Havana can become.



Easter Island

"Transit", points one sign as you step off the plane at the world's most isolated airport. "Easter Island", instructs the other sign. In fact, this remarkable fragment erupting from the South Pacific is basically one big transit lounge. Between arriving from Tahiti and connecting to Santiago, you could stay in the bar devouring good Chilean coffee and/or wine. Or you could break free of the airport perimeter – which abuts the main town – and explore this land of mysterious stone heads and startling scenery.



Amsterdam

It used to claim to be "London's third airport"; now Schiphol has to settle for being the third airport of Paris, following KLM's takeover by Air France. Nonetheless, the Dutch capital's terminus has far more of a sense of occasion than many of its rivals – most notably in the annexe of the Rijksmuseum close to pier E, where transit travellers aware that the Golden Age of travel is over can immerse themselves in the Golden Age of 17th- and 18th-century Old Masters.



Heathrow Terminal 5

When the sole tenant of a new terminal feels obliged to take out advertisements saying that only one in 10 of its flights is more than 15 minutes late, you know it has issues. But in the unlikely event that you find yourself lost in transit at Heathrow, try to make it inside this £4bn-plus public relations disaster. You can expect breathtaking views across Europe's busiest airport, classy shopping and the sense of space from a terminal operating at 50 per cent capacity.

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