More than 20 million travellers pass through Palma de Mallorca’s airport each year and at first glance Bettina could be just another tourist waiting for a flight home. But she never checks in.
The 48-year-old German has been living at the airport – known as Son Sant Joan – for 10 years, pushing her three suitcases, a blanket, a pile of books and her white cat, Mumu, around with her. Referred to in the airport simply as “the woman with the cat”, Bettina has become as much a part of the airport as the planes and runways.
Her story recalls the Tom Hanks film The Terminal, which was reportedly inspired by the story of man who lived at Charles de Gaulle airport near Paris for 18 years after his documents were stolen.
Bettina, who refuses to disclose her full name, is from a small town in southern Germany. She arrived in Mallorca more than 10 years ago for a new start after a relationship ended and she lost her office job. She landed odd jobs working as a waitress then helping in a kitchen, but the dream of living in the sun turned sour. “Suddenly there was no work because they only give jobs to Spaniards,” she told the local Diario de Mallorca newspaper. “I wanted to work in Mallorca but I got stranded here.”
With no job, home or money, she began living in the airport, where she gets by on the kindness of friends or strangers. “One friend brings me something to eat twice a week. Sometimes people give me a bit of money as well, but I don’t ask anyone for anything.”
Amid the bustle of the airport, Bettina is often seen quietly reading, dressed smartly in jeans and a sweatshirt. She cleans herself and her clothes in the toilets, while departure lounge seats serve as beds. But she has no desire to return to Germany. “No way. Life is better for me here.”
She is popular among airport staff. “She is intelligent, discreet and does not bother anyone. She says she has made this her home because she has everything she needs here,” said cleaner María Jesús Rueda García, 54. “Things didn’t work out so she has come to live here. She can get by and is not a beggar because she has income – I have seen her take money out of the cashpoint. This could happen to us all.”
Marie-Carmen Gallárdo, 40, a cafe worker, said: “She has been here 10 years – the same as me. Perhaps at Christmas she goes home to see her family.”
The airport authorities turn a blind eye to Bettina. “She has never bothered anyone and as this is a public building she can use the facilities – washing in the toilets or cleaning her clothes,” said Marta Fernández, spokeswoman for Aena, the state company that manages Spain’s airports.
Bettina is not the only one to live in a Spanish airport. Generally, such residents are tolerated so long as they do not bother passengers. In Britain, four people were given asbos for living at Gatwick.