On a Monday afternoon several weeks ago, a visibly intoxicated passenger got off an airplane at Pittsburgh International Airport and headed, rather unsteadily, for baggage claim.
She was slurring her words and smelled of alcohol, prompting a call from an airport employee to the Allegheny County Police, who patrol the airport and its grounds. She later became violent and resisted arrest, at one point assaulting an officer and causing him to bleed.
Airports, like the small cities they are, must deal with occasional criminal offenses, such as disorderly conduct, theft and public intoxication. And sometimes, the police take the offenders to the airport jail.
That’s right. The airport has a jail.
The small police station located across the roadway from baggage claim on the ground level of the Landside Terminal has two holding cells. There’s a third cell in a smaller substation in the Airside Terminal.
Most airports have holding cells used to detain individuals arrested in and around the terminal until the authorities decide what to do with them.
“The cells are mostly just used for temporary detention,” said Inspector Bill Palmer of the Allegheny County Police Department. “There’s other reasons, too, but usually it’s just a temporary detention holding while the paperwork is completed to either release the person or take them to a magistrate for a preliminary arraignment.”
Policing the airport
Similar to a county jail, airport holding cells include toilets and metal ledges that can be used as beds. The cells are also used to house prisoners who are being transported by air in the time between departing or connecting flights.
Last year, county police made 118 arrests at PIT, Palmer said. Of those, the two most common offenses were public intoxication and theft involving retail or car rentals.
Other airport police forces can be much busier. For example, Los Angeles International Airport accommodates more than 60 million travelers a year. Not surprisingly, police there handle a much higher volume of arrests: about 15 per day on average.
But the airport has only four holding cells, according to Rob Tedregon, an LAX airport police spokesman.
“Years ago, we’d bring everybody here, and the cells would be full all the time,” Tedregon said. But as police got more efficient, they’d get approval to book offenders at the airport and then take them to the actual county jail.
That’s the case at PIT, too. Sometimes, police will hold an intoxicated person until they can contact a friend or relative to pick up the offender. With theft and other crimes, the holding cells are only used for a short period of time to fill out paperwork.
Crimes committed on planes in the air are a bit thornier. The International Air Transport Association reported more than 66,000 incidents of unruly passengers from 2007-17. In-flight crimes can range from sexual assault to interfering with the flight crew, among other offenses threatening the safety of passengers and crew on commercial aircraft.
Crimes committed onboard are typically considered federal offenses and are likely to fall under jurisdiction of the FBI.
The bureau has special agents assigned as liaisons for U.S. airports regulated by the TSA, said Robert Jones, Special Agent in Charge of Pittsburgh’s FBI headquarters.
FBI agents respond to aviation-related incidents and threats, and work with the TSA and other agencies to assess threats at the nation’s airports, Jones said.
“The FBI is committed to reducing vulnerabilities in our nation’s transportation system to ensure the safety of all passengers,” he said.
In addition to Allegheny County Police, law enforcement at PIT include agents from the FBI, TSA and Customs and Border Protection.
“With thousands of people traveling through day in and day out, it’s important to be extremely vigilant,” Palmer said.