Airports are a place of transience. People come and go all day long, typically never settling in for longer than a few hours at a time before taking off for their next destination. Of course, travel is not always that simple. Complications arise, flights get delayed, and short layovers get extended to an overnight stay.
— C M B (@cece_boyce92) July 27, 2018
Even the most seasoned travelers, however, never expect to find themselves stuck in an airport overnight. Sometimes, however, circumstances beyond our control defy expectations. For Robert Rose, producer and host of Raw Travel TV, and his crew, his worst layover to date turned into 24 hours in an airport in Ghana.
“I’ve been to almost 70 countries, and this was one for the ages,” he tells Urbo. “We were stuck in the Accra, Ghana, airport with no AC, no food, no water, and little information.”
Mechanical issues with the plane were what resulted in Rose and his crew deboarding their plane just before takeoff, and what was meant to be a quick delay ended as 24 hours in the airport. Although he and his crew were dismissed to a local hotel, they were quickly called back only to learn that their flight had been canceled again.
“After hours … some passengers started crying, some began throwing things, and a near-riot broke out,” he recalls. “An Australian passenger ended up buying food for the passengers because the South African Airlines wouldn’t provide any.”
Although not how we would want to spend a day, 24 hours in an airport seems mild when compared to the stories of layovers that turned into something much more. There are many individuals who have, through choice or circumstance, lived in airports for weeks, months, and even years. We’ve already covered the stories of four people who called terminals home; here are five more—and some tips for survival if you get stuck in one yourself.
The Activists And Asylum-Seekers
Whether it’s refugees fleeing their home countries or activists barred from reentering, the most prominent reason for long-term airport dwelling seems to be politics.
In 2009, scholar and human rights activist Feng Zhenghu lived in Tokyo’s Narita International Airport for three months after being denied reentry into his home country of China eight different times. His history of openly criticizing government officials’ civil rights violations had put him in bad graces.
Although Zhenghu had a Japanese visa, he chose not to enter the country, remaining in the airport’s immigration zone as a form of protest. He told the Associated Press that he had “no reason to stay in Japan” and wanted to go home.
In 2010, Zhenghu was finally allowed to re-enter China, where, according to Tienchi Martin-Liao writing for Sampsonia Way, he lived in peace with Shanghai authorities for over a year despite being under surveillance. In 2012, he was placed under house arrest, unable to leave his police-guarded apartment except by escort—as he was to one 10-hour interrogation.
Searching #FengZhenghu on Twitter shows that the most recent mention of him comes from November 2017, when Amnesty International China researcher Patrick Poon reported that Zhenghu was taken by police before having his home raided, including the confiscation of his computer and cell phone.
Shanghai activist #FengZhenghu @fzhenghu was taken away yesterday (22 Nov) and his home was raided. Police took away his computer and mobile. He returned home late at night but he was taken to the police station again this morning (23 Nov). https://t.co/tIl2MvAATv
— 🕯𝒫𝒶𝓉𝓇𝒾𝒸𝓀 𝒫𝑜𝑜𝓃 潘嘉偉 (@patrickpoon) November 23, 2017
Another troubling story is that of Mohammed al-Bahish, a Palestinian refugee who found himself stuck in Kazakhstan’s Almaty International Airport without a visa. For more than five months, the then-26-year-old was confined to a small room in the airport, about 6.5 feet by 10 feet, only permitted to venture out to other areas when accompanied by security. The BBC reported that al-Bahish had been in Kazakhstan while registering to marry his girlfriend, a Kazakh national whom he’d met while working as an interior designer in Dubai, but his refugee travel documents went missing and his Kazakh and UAE visas expired.
He flew to Turkey in hopes of renewing his Kazakh visa, but he was turned away at the border in Istanbul for not having a valid visa and sent back to Almaty. There, he was again deported for not having a valid visa and sent back to Istanbul. He was volleyed back and forth between the two cities four times.
— rayhan demytrie (@rayhandemytrie) July 3, 2013
Because al-Bahish was in “the sterile zone” intended for travelers and airport staff during this endless layover, without access to duty-free stores or cafes, he subsisted on airline meals provided by Kazakhstan’s national air carrier.
“For the entire month of June I ate beef and mushroom stroganoff,” he told the BBC. “I don’t think I will ever eat beef again.”
Eventually, al-Bahish was allowed entrance to Finland, where he remained separated from his girlfriend, who was now pregnant with his child. There have been no additional updates on al-Bahish’s status since 2013 (but if you have any information, please send it our way, as we are very interested).
Tetsuya Abo may or may not belong in the above section, so we just put him here. There isn’t much information about him available, but in 2015, the then-36-year-old Japanese blogger and freelancer camped out in Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport hoping to receive Russian citizenship, according to The Moscow Times.
He claimed to be a journalist seeking asylum, reportedly telling Sputnik News: “It has become impossible to tell the truth in Japan. Of course, in America, it’s the same situation. Those who tell the truth there lose their jobs; they feel pressure. In Japan, it’s the same as in the U.S., people feel they’re not being told the truth.”
Going to Russia for freedom of expression was…a curious choice. We’re wondering now what he was blogging about.
Former British jockey Gary Peter Austin, then 52, stayed in the Ninoy Aquino International Airport in the Philippines for 25 days. The reason is pretty straightforward: He ran out of money.
According to The Philippine Star, Austin arrived in Manila as a tourist on November 29, 2012 and became stranded when his travel agency canceled his flight to Kuwait on December 19. In January 2013, the Manila Standard reported that Austin was able to fly home to England thanks to the generosity of a Dutch chef/entrepreneur living in Manila at the time.
One more thing—and they really kind of buried the lede here—Austin apparently promised to financially support one of the airport janitors and her 10-year old son in gratitude for her leaking his story to journalists.
Also because, reported the Standard, she had “captivated him with her smile and somehow lessened his grief.” Romantic!
Romance, presumably, was what compelled Heinz Müller, a 46-year-old former pilot, to fly from Germany to Brazil in 2009. Unfortunately, the girlfriend he’d met on the internet broke up with him, and then he ran out of money and decided to nurse his wounds for an extended period of time at the Viracopos International Airport in Campinas—near where his ex lived.
“‘Dumped’ man lives in airport,” as one blunt, and honestly kind of insensitive, headline put it.
After 13 days he was taken by authorities to a hospital for psychological evaluation. He finally left the country on February 5, 2010, according to The Seattle Times.
Shortly after, another German dude who’d flown to Brazil to meet a woman he met on the internet (what’s the deal here?) also got his ticket home (literally). Klaus Gutschmidt, who was 50 at the time, had been living in Natal’s international airport for more than a month when his friends’ and family’s efforts to fund his return flight came through for a February 16 departure. (We couldn’t find any reports confirming whether he actually took the flight.)
Gutschmidt’s relationship with the Brazilian woman had lasted only one week before ending, at which point he went looking for a hotel and was robbed of all his money and possessions, leaving him stranded. Some people really would do anything for love.
Stranded? Here are some survival tips.
Most travelers will never have to worry about spending days or months living in an airport. Still, delayed and canceled flights are a common experience for those who travel frequently and can be a huge inconvenience. In some cases, these last-minute changes to travel plans create a domino effect, causing further missed flights, missed hotel reservations, and costing travelers a lot of unbudgeted money.
For Rose (remember him?), it was his sense of humor and ability to make friends easily that made his 24-hour layover bearable. While stuck in Ghana, he connected with other stranded travelers and even began to interview them on his iPhone, which served as a great distraction during their extended wait.
“We all seemed to take turns ‘losing it,’ and we’d all kind of calm each other down,” he says. “I still keep in touch with some of the folks from that flight, and a few months later we ended up going to Haiti to film an episode with a guy who was on that flight from Haiti that we met, so maybe things worked out for a reason.”
Mike Pletz, a seasoned traveler and travel blogger, tells Urbo that he once found himself sleeping overnight in an airport in Narita—the same one where activist Feng Zhenghu took up residence—after an emergency landing. “With this being busy season, all of the nearby hotels were booked up and most of the passengers had to sleep overnight in a closed airport,” he says. “Security and some airport personnel stayed with us, provided sleeping supplies and some snacks.”
If you find yourself stuck in an airport for more than a few hours, there are some things you need to know about making your circumstances bearable. Pletz suggests taking action immediately to find a hotel, instead of waiting to see if the airline will resolve the problems with your flights. If you are unable to find a place to stay, try to remain flexible and go with the flow.
Travelers who find themselves spending a lot of time in an airport should take measures to protect their immune systems, too. In airports, people come and go all day long, bringing with them whatever germs or illnesses they’ve been exposed to. It’s important to do whatever possible to keep yourself from catching a virus.
“Wash your hands or carry hand sanitizer in case soap and water aren’t available,” suggests Robin Mayfield, MD, a physician at Boston-based CareWell Urgent Care. “Be conscious of what you’re touching, and avoid touching your face, especially if you’re using poles and hand railings, [which] can be loaded with viruses.”
Additionally, Mayfield stresses the importance of remaining hydrated, since dehydration weakens the immune system.
If your extended layover wasn’t planned, you may be able to seek compensation from the airport for your inconvenience, according to longtime traveler Shy Bredewold, owner of internet travel agency Odyssean Travel.
“Without ruining your aircrew’s day, perhaps request some special consideration for your troubles, and you may receive a voucher for food or another facility in the airport,” she says. “Keep a record of your costs and activities; there may be some room for a future travel consideration.”
Lastly, and perhaps more importantly, when your travel plans take a turn for the worse, try to stay calm and treat the airline employees with dignity and respect. If you’re having a hard time keeping your cool, revisit these stories of travelers trapped in the airport for months on end—and thank your lucky stars you’ve only been delayed for a few hours.