Edward Snowden, the former NSA contractor and wanted whistleblower, is officially a man without a country. He's reportedly still in Moscow's Sheremetyevo airport, and his American passport has been revoked as the U.S. and Russia square off over U.S. demands that he be sent back home to face charges. Which raises an intriguing question: Just how long can a person hang out, or, in this case hide out, in an international airport transit area?
Hollywood's version aside — see Tom Hanks in The Terminal — it's unlikely that anyone could exploit the limbo status of an airport transit zone for very long.
Incredibly, Snowden's precise whereabouts continue to be a secret: He's eluded the press several times, booking seats on various Aeroflot flights to Havana and then pulling a no-show. A day ago he was said to be at the Capsule Hotel, located in the transit zone at Moscow's Sheremetyevo Airport. Today, his whereabouts are still a mystery.
Rules on how long an international transit flier can stay in an airport without actually entering the country vary, of course, and while the Russian government's official posture is that Snowden is technically not on Russian soil, it's clear that the policies of the home country have a lot to do with how someone in his situation is treated.
The website of Sheremetyevo (flag carrier Aeroflot's home base) spells it out clearly: "While waiting for a connecting flight, foreign citizens can stay in Sheremetyevo for 24 hours with no Russian visa issued. The passenger should have a ticket from the airlines for the next flight with the places confirmed."
Then it goes on to say " If the flight change requires a stay in Sheremetyevo for more than 24 hours, foreign transit passengers can get an RF [Russian Federation] transit visa directly in the airport (if the ticket for continuation of the flight of the carrier and current identification documents are submitted)."
Of course, Snowden's plans for flying beyond Moscow are reportedly changing daily, and his documents are invalid, so this is plainly a flagrant violation that the Russians are choosing to ignore.
The general policy for global travel is that anyone who takes an international flight without the proper documentation is supposed to be sent straight back to where they came from — and the airline is supposed to pick up the tab since it was the airline's responsibility to vet the documents and to bar anyone from boarding who doesn't pass muster.
Curiously, that Tom Hanks movie, while based on the true story of a refugee stuck in limbo land at Charles De Gaulle Airport, was set at JFK airport, where such a scenario would be impossible. That's because U.S. airports, even major international hubs, lack the types of transit areas where Snowden is holed up.
Caroline O'Reilly, a spokesman for Airports Council North America, confirmed that this is the case: "There are no Moscow-style transit lounges at U.S. airports; all arriving international passengers must process through Customs on arrival, even if they are connecting to another flight, domestic or international."