The woman rammed the partially open airport gate around 10 p.m. Thursday and started crossing the runway, police spokesman Sgt. Trent Crump said. Officers forced the car to stop after a few minutes and detained the driver.
She was identified as Koko Nicole Anderson, 20, from nearby Mesa. She was booked into jail on aggravated DUI and criminal damage charges. Police suspect she had taken an unknown drug.
The child was a boy about 3 and in a car seat. He wasn't hurt and has been turned over to relatives. Crump said Anderson was so impaired she didn't even know the boy was in the car.
"We don't believe her intent was to harm here," police spokesman Sgt. Trent Crump said. "We believe its impairment and poor decision making."
Such incidents are troublesome because a vehicle that crashed into a jetliner landing or taking off could cause a catastrophe, whether it was an intoxicated driver behind the wheel or a terrorist, said Jeff Price, an aviation professor at the Metropolitan State University of Denver and former assistant security director at Denver International Airport.
Airports in general need to think about adding barriers that automatically pop up if an unauthorized vehicle enters a gate as part of an overall upgrade of perimeter security that also includes better detection systems, he said.
The incident was the latest involving vehicles crashing through the Phoenix airport's gates or fences and getting onto its runways. Sky Harbor spent $10 million to upgrade its perimeter security and access gates after a man being chased by police in 2005 crashed a stolen pickup through a gate and drove onto the runways, passing several jets on a taxiway. In 2003, two teens in a stolen car crashed through a perimeter fence and drove onto the airfield. Both incidents caused brief closure of aircraft operations.
Sky Harbor spokeswoman Deborah Ostreicher said an airport operations worker was testing the gate as it was closing the small sedan crashed through. The worker promptly notified police and the control tower, which ordered a halt to air traffic operations.
As the car made it onto a runway, Phoenix police officers used their vehicles to spin the car around and stop it.
Ostreicher said no aircraft were nearby at the time and no passengers were in immediate danger. Airport operations were stopped for about 15 minutes.
Similar examples have occurred at airports around the country.
A man crashed his SUV through a locked gate at Philadelphia International Airport on March 1 and drove down a runway at speeds of more than 100 mph as a plane was fast approaching him from behind. The incident caused a major disruption, forcing air traffic controllers to put dozens of flights into holding patterns and delaying the departures of dozens more. He was sentenced to 16 months in prison.
In Grand Junction, Colo., a driver smashed through a fence while under the influence of alcohol in 2008 before getting stuck atop electrical equipment.
Earlier this year, a man swam ashore at New York's Kennedy Airport after his personal watercraft ran out of gas and climbed a security fence, making his way onto the airport. Officials immediately beefed up security after the Aug. 13 incident, which did not trigger an intrusion detection system.
Most airports don't have intrusion systems like the one at JFK, but they should be added, said Price.
Beefing up airport gates and adding pop-up barriers would also address vulnerability like that exposed at Sky Harbor Thursday night.
Normal practice for airport workers is to allow the gate to close once they've driven though so another car can't follow it onto the airfield, Price said. But as Thursday night's incident shows, that's not always possible.
Military bases often use pop-up barriers, and Los Angeles International Airport had added some, Price said.
"What we're trying to do is keep somebody from intentionally coming onto the field and driving into a plane, whether that's because they were drunk and accidentally hit the plane or they intentionally wanted to try and hit the aircraft," Price said. "Frankly, you don't need to fill a car with explosives and drive it into a plane on the airfield. All you have to do is manage to get on the field and hit the plane while it's on takeoff or landing and you're going to have a catastrophe."