What kind of agonised soul would ever stay in an airport hotel? Would he be a plane-spotter? Someone afraid of city centres? And surely any individual wanting to stay among planes only half an hour from Rome must be even more confused.

If so, the Rome Airport Hilton at Fiumicino is packed with freaks and, as the hotel is the only one at the airport, the place is flourishing, usually 70 per cent full.

One man was sprawled across the bar in despair. He was Thomas Sirillo, from Erie, Pennsylvania. I cant get home and the moneys running out. Rome was beautiful up to now. We saw the Colosseum, the Trevi fountain, the Vatican, everything there is to see. Then this happened.

This was that he had been bumped (refused a seat) from planes bound for the United States three times in two days. As an airline employee, he travelled on special non-refundable, cash-only tickets, but the flights they were meant for had all been full, having accommodated the overflow from an airline that was allegedly always overbooking.

Sirillo had been in a party of three, and the others, a mother with a two-year-old child, had got out. But Ive got a job to go to and Im late. Its very frustrating. To raise funds, he was trying to contact a friend in the North American College.

Theres something very exceptional about the people who stay with us, explained the hotels French general manager, 41-year-old Serge Ethuin. Some 35 per cent of them are tourists, whereas most airport hotels hardly see the breed. Most airport hotels cater mainly for business people. Why is the Rome Airport Hilton an exception?

The proximity to the beaches for one thing, and were an alternative to the city centre. But why dont guests prefer a hotel in the centre itself? Ethuin had a clinching answer. Our rates are cheaper, 40 per cent cheaper than, for instance, the Cavalieri Hilton, atop Monte Mario. (Over the phone, his staff quoted a single room at 195 and a double at 230, less than the rates cited on internet.)

Most of the tourists, he said, were usually aged between 35 and 45, and getting younger. They hailed from, in order, America and, surprisingly, Italy itself, while 15 per cent were from the UK and the rest from Japan. A four-member family intercepted while checking in was, indeed, American. Daddy, Roberto Guiterrez, from Houston, Texas, born in Puerto Rico, explained that they had spent five days in Rome, Naples, Sorrento and Pompeii, moving about by train. Then we got in late. They had chosen the hotel so that they could leap from pillow to plane with less risk the next day.

About to board the hotels free shuttle bus into Rome was a young Australian couple, Ed and Anna, from Sydney. Admittedly Anna had won points for two free nights in the hotel as a Hilton employee back home. But they were staying more than two nights, and Ed came up with the rationale: After Rome, were heading out into the countryside by hired car and we are staying here to avoid the hassle of finding our way out of Rome tomorrow, so that we can hit the motorways at once. Well be doing the same on the way back dropping the car here and jumping on the plane.

However, the majority of people that day were a very different species an utterly male preserve, a crush of dead earnest look-alikes, all in dark suits, black shoes and ties, all clutching bulging black briefcases, the lot of them either pacing about or locked into discourse on sofas or in corners, all hostile to interruption. One who showed his displeasure was stocky, moustachioed Luigi de Candia from Bari. He was talking to a colleague from Turin and was not even a resident at the 517-room hotel. He was going back to Bari that night. And the topic of the pairs conversation? Diabetes. They had flown into Rome for a 30-delegate meeting on the issue. He said it was going well.

Big firms, especially in the car industry or pharmaceuticals, find the hotel a godsend for gathering their scattered troops in one spot, into, that is, one of the places 17 conference halls, the biggest of which are called ballrooms. It saves the firms from having to march their people into Rome and out again.

But the hotels most overwrought guests were its most unwilling ones. These were the lay-overs, distressed souls lodged there by the airlines because of long delayed flights. It happens often, remarked Elisa Maroino, the managers assistant from Milan. We suddenly get up to 300 people besieging us. Many see their holidays ruined and theyre confused and upset. Youve got to be very nice to them.

Hopefully less upset are the many airline crews who clock into the hotel, with 80 rooms kept in reserve for them, though these are never slept in by British Airways people whose pad is a hostelry on Via Aurelia Antica.