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Software glitch grounds Sonoma County flights

  • Charles M. Schulz-Sonoma County Airport. (PD File)

A glitch in a weather monitoring system at Charles M. Schulz-Sonoma County Airport on Wednesday forced the cancellation of three Alaska Airlines flights and disrupted travel plans for more than 300 passengers looking to get an early jump on holiday travels.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration had scheduled to do maintenance on the airport's weather station Wednesday morning, but ended up knocking the system offline for more than five hours, airport manager Jon Stout said. Airlines rely on weather data to make takeoff and landing calculations, he said, and cannot fly without the information.

Craig Hammond, of Santa Rosa, said he was on his way to Lewiston, Idaho, with his family but had to scrap his plans when the 10:40 a.m. flight from Sonoma County to Seattle was canceled.

“We had to cancel our entire vacation,” said Hammond, who had closed his auto repair shop through the weekend in anticipation of his trip. “What I don't understand is why they decided to do this before a holiday weekend.”

Halley Knigge, a spokesperson for Alaska Airlines, said that 381 passengers were affected on morning flights to Seattle, Los Angeles and Portland.

“We could not land any flights while the system was down,” she said.

A flight from Los Angeles to Sonoma County landed at Oakland International Airport. Another flight from Portland turned around in midair.

The airline accommodated most of the stranded passengers by getting them on other flights out of Oakland and San Francisco, Knigge said. The weather monitoring system was fixed at 2:15 p.m. and afternoon flights out of Sonoma County to San Diego and Los Angeles left on schedule.

Stout said Wednesday was the worst day for commercial flight cancellations at the airport since Horizon Airlines grounded a fleet of Bombardier planes in September 2007 due to a landing gear issue. The weather monitoring equipment has been operating at the airport for 15 years without a glitch, Stout said. Airport management and NOAA will meet next week to discuss contingencies in case the problem recurs, he said.

“It is a bit frustrating,” he said. “It is not a good situation for our traveling public.”

Construction work on the airport's runways did not factor in the glitch, Stout said. Crews are currently working on a project to extend both runways, and are expected to finish by mid-October. The main runway was scheduled to close for construction Wednesday night, and all air traffic will be routed to the shorter, secondary runway, Stout said.

You can reach Staff Writer Matt Brown at 521-5206 or matt.brown@pressdemocrat.com.

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