Established 2005 Registered Charity No. 1110656

Scottish Charity Register No. SC043760

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In terminal decline

May 20 2009
Do you fit the profile of a traveller? Do you fit the profile of a traveller?
Our post-9/11 world means that airports are less welcoming to the homeless People who used to bed down in airports are finding it difficult in the post 9/11 world. Although many reasons are given for moving on rough sleepers, some of which don't stand close scrutiny, the situation is different in the capital's airports, where people who used to use the terminals as a shelter to bed down in are now viewed suspiciously because of heightened security levels. Don't be fooled by Tom Hanks in the film Terminal: airports are no place to find some peace and quiet. It just isn't a place you can expect not be questioned if you bed down. Whereas security measures on the streets vary with location and proximity of VIP targets, there is no flexibility when it comes to airports. Sleeping near Buckingham Palace may cause you to catch the eye of a passing policeman, but in an airport you're almost guaranteed to be noticed - noticed and asked to move along. Many readers will know rough sleepers who have swapped the streets or a squat for a plastic chair in an international airport, and some may even have taken the tube out to Heathrow for a few hours' rest. The appeal is obvious: the constant procession of people to watch; the anonymity of being in such a large, diverse and ever-changing crowd; the warmth, comfort and relative cleanliness. In days when it was common, Heathrow Terminal Two was considered the most comfortable of those on offer, with Gatwick and Stanstead being too far outside London to enter the running. On top of these reasons are the other considerations that make airports so comfortable: they are used to dealing with passengers in transit, so have larger toilet facilities, often geared to those who want to wash or shave; large bookshops and newsagents provide the distraction of new reading material; they run for 24 hours, so you won't find everything shutting up in the wee hours; and there will always be a coffee shop open for those who need a cup. It all sounds like a good place to rest for the night. But that was before the threat of terrorist attacks. Though it has always been illegal to sleep within their marble precincts, the climate has changed considerably since the destruction of the Twin Towers in New York in 2001. Since then, airport security has increased considerably, particularly in airports such as Heathrow which experience such high densities of tourist traffic. Whereas once a pair of police officers would patrol the terminal, now armed police are always on duty. A spokesperson for the British Airports Authority (BAA) at Heathrow told The Pavement that every terminal has its own police force based there and the airport has its own security service operating 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The security barrier has also moved in most airports from the comfortable areas with good seats and bars up to the ticket window, thus restricting the areas open to those walking in without a ticket. Similarly, CCTV security has increased, scanning for those who don't look like the average tourist. Although those readers with backpacks may pass themselves off as on a walking holiday, they are still likely to be picked out. Cameras and the attendant security will be able to pick out those who don't fit the profile of a traveller, with small details such as the lack of luggage labels drawing attention. Also, the increased police presence makes it more likely that you'll be noticed sitting for a long time in a single spot, and you are likely to be asked not only for some form of identity, but also a "valid ticket to travel." If you have neither of these, you'll be asked to accompany them to the station, or escorted out of the airport. The Pavement recently heard of a reader who had regularly used the airport to sleep at in the past being asked to leave the terminal. Unfortunately, after a little investigation, the reasons for this, as we have already seen, are quite apparent. Whereas in the past some police may have turned a blind eye to regulars skippering in the terminals, in this security climate there is no leniency, and if you do not have a ticket to travel, you will be shown the door. We asked the BAA to clarify the situation, and they explained that "under the local byelaws it is illegal to be under the airport without proper purpose." This means if you aren't working, flying or meeting someone at one of the gates, you shouldn't be there. So it's a black-and-white issue at Heathrow and Gatwick, and one few could argue with, especially when considering the security sensitivity of the area. So, if you're tempted to find rest amongst the teeming tourists of Terminal Two, be prepared to be asked to leave. It's that or buy a ticket to fly. Thank you to the British Airport Authority (BAA) for talking to this paper on this issue. A thorny one that many organisations would not comment on, and many have chosen to ignore.