The movie begins with Viktor Navorski (Tom Hanks) arriving at New York's JFK airport from a fictional country in Eastern Europe called Krakozhia. He is pulled from the Customs line due to having an invalid passport and is taken to the office of Frank Dixon (Stanley Tucci) who is the assistant director in charge of Homeland Security. It seems that, while Victor was en route to New York, his country had a rather serious revolution and the change in regieme has invalidated his passport and visa.
It would seem that Viktor cannot enter the United States but he cannot go back, either. This creates a problem for Frank Dixon (Stanley Tucci), as Viktor is "Unacceptable" as a person who has fallen into the cracks through a loophole. While Frank wants Viktor to just go away, he can not specifically tell him to break the law and leave the airport, so he sets up a few instances to try and tempt Viktor to leave. Should Viktor leave the airport without authorization, he will be arrested and will no longer be Frank's problem. Viktor, who at this point speaks no english, gets wise to Frank's plans and therefore ends up living in the airport.
A series of events ensue, many of which are instantly recognizable to most seasoned travelers:
1. How do you sleep comfortably in the chairs in the boarding areas?
Viktor creates a homeless shelter of sorts in one of the terminals being renovated.
2. How do you get a decent meal?
Viktor has no money, so he mainly eats saltines and ketchup.
3. How do you earn a wage?
Viktor discoveres he gets a quarter for each baggage cart he returns, until Frank hires someone to return the carts, thereby denying Viktor his money. Viktor eventually gets a job under-the-table by helping to do construction in the Terminal, which in a way for him is simply "home repair work".
4. How do you communicate? Viktor learns English by comparing the Krakozhia version of the Fyodor's Guide to the English one and through watching CNN and reading the subtitles.
It becomes pretty clear that Viktor is more at home in the airport than those around him, not only because he lives there but because he takes the time to learn about those around him. He meets quite a few of them, including an Indian janitor (who is an Illegal alien hiding from an attempted murder charge), an attractive customs worker who rejects his visa application daily, an airline catering worker who has a crush on the customs worker (to whom Viktor acts as a Cyrano in exchange for food), and a first-class flight attendant who plays a partial love interest to Viktor, but whom ultimately can't give up her relationship with a wealthy married man (played by Catherine Zeta Jones).
Ultimately, the stewardess is able to get Viktor a 1 day pass into New York, which happens on the same day that peace is declared in Krakozhia some 9 months after the initial revolution. Viktor is going to take the day to complete the reason he went to New York in the first place, but Frank wants him on the plane back to Krakozhia and threatens to deport the Indian Janitor, get the catering guy fired for theft and other nasty blackmail reasons. Viktor doesn't want his friends in trouble, so he leaves, only to be confronted by the Janitor who calls him a coward (since he doesn't know the sacrifice Viktor is making). When the janitor learns the truth, he runs onto the tarmac to stop Viktor's plane, armed with a mop and a whole lot of attitude. Viktor's plane is delayed and he decides to go to New York after all.
Why did Viktor come to New York? It seems that his dead father loved Jazz music, and collected the autographs of some 50+ artists, with the exception of one. Viktor is able to leave the terminal, go to the hotel where the man plays, and gets his autograph, after which he tells the Taxi driver he wants to go home. We the audience are left to figure out if he's referring to the Airport Terminal or Krakozhia.
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