Internal emails show Sonoma County airport workers concerned over cracked, sinking runway

A Press Democrat investigation found safety and operations employees at the Santa Rosa airport have been raising concerns over worsening conditions on the airport’s main runway and other potential safety hazards. Officials insist the airport is safe.|

About the Sonoma County airport

Constructed just before World War II on 339 acres outlying northwest Santa Rosa, the Charles M. Schulz-Sonoma County Airport was initially used as a military airfield.

The U.S. Fourth Air Corps trained fighter groups and squadrons at the site from 1943 to 1946. After the war it resumed operations as a civil airfield and underwent some growth through the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s.

Today, the airport offers service from three commercial airlines — Alaska Airlines, American Airlines and Avelo Airlines — with 15 nonstop destinations by May, as well as a newly renovated, $40 million terminal.

In 2023, it served a total 641,178 passengers. Avelo’s new hub could bring even more.

The airfield has two runways, with only one, Runway 14/32, capable of handling large commercial aircraft. That runway also is the site of many of the airport’s current infrastructure problems.

In August, Sonoma County officials held a grand-opening gala to celebrate the completion of a five-year, $40 million project to modernize the terminal at Charles M. Schulz-Sonoma County Airport.

They touted the project as a key piece of their economic development strategy as they try to lure new airlines and persuade existing carriers to expand routes.

But behind the scenes, alarm bells were ringing.

For more than a year, airport operations and safety employees have been voicing concerns over the deteriorating conditions of the airport’s main runway and other potential safety hazards, according to internal emails reviewed by The Press Democrat during a four-month investigation.

The emails, obtained under the California Public Records Act, show that those employees have documented sinking and cracking pavement that is causing holes to form and water to pond in key parts of the main runway.

The emails also show that the airport is underreporting the amount of water pooling on the runway via official communications relaying field conditions to pilots. Pilots and Federal Aviation Administration officials say they depend on accurate information about the condition of the runway to safely land and take off there.

The problems are accumulating amid a growing rivalry between the airport’s two main commercial carriers, Alaska Airlines and Avelo Airlines, both of which have announced new routes serving Sonoma County within recent weeks.

The majority of the runway has not been repaved since 2001. A $55 million runway extension project in 2014 — heralded as a new era of expanded commercial service at the now 85-year-old airport — added a short stretch of new pavement but only seal-cracked the full runway.

A major repavement project, with an estimated cost of $42 million, is at least four years off, according to county officials. Until then, the county foresees only patchwork fixes.

The standard life span for runways designed to meet federal aviation guidelines is 20 years, according to an airport civil engineer interviewed by The Press Democrat. Often, runways require repairs after only a decade, he said.

Meanwhile, officials with Service Employees International Local 1021, which represents airport operations and safety staff, say the issues at the airport are already serious. Repairs and other delayed upkeep, union officials say, has taken a back seat to more flashy projects such as the recent terminal expansion.

“They've spent a lot of money and time developing the terminal to be an attractive place for guests to come. But they have not devoted the same level of care and resources to the safety of those passengers,” said Travis Balzarini, a county employee and president of SEIU Local 1021.

Airport and county infrastructure officials insist the airport is safe and rejected claims they do not take the runway issues seriously. Runway repairs are scheduled for June once the ground dries, the county announced March 15 — after a series of lengthy interviews with Press Democrat reporters tied to the paper’s investigation.

The airport meets all FAA standards, officials said, and specific concerns about runway infrastructure — such as cracking and ponding — are common at many airports and are being dealt with in a timely manner, they said. County officials in charge of the airport said they “absolutely” prioritize safety and would not let their families board a plane flying out of the airport if it were not safe.

“We’re a highly regulated, very complex operation and there’s a lot of pieces and parts, but we’re not operating unsafely,” Airport Manager Jon Stout said. “The FAA is not putting any restrictions on us in our airfield and the operations we’re doing, and we are meeting standards.”

Runway ‘speed bump’

Problems with disintegrating pavement on the main runway have been documented by the county as far back as December 2022.

That is when Chris Stinson, a senior airport operations specialist, alerted his supervisor and airport management to water collecting on the southern part of the main runway — a sign of sinking asphalt.

“This ponding shows that the runway is deteriorating,” Stinson wrote. “This is the first time I’ve seen actual ponding in this area and the possible hydroplane action this could cause for landing aircraft.”

Just weeks later, on Jan. 6, 2023, Stinson sent another email, this time to more airport executives, including Stout, alerting them that the pavement of the touchdown area on the main runway was “starting (to) fail,” and that the area had “gone downhill fast!”

In the email, Stinson said the ground was sinking, causing rainwater to “pond.” He explained that water had penetrated the ground causing the subbase of the runway to start giving way. He also described how a concrete encasement for an electrical conduit under the runway was causing pavement to sink on either side, forming a “speed bump” on the runway.

“Large aircraft in this area are hydraulically forcing water down and popping out material,” Stinson wrote.

He warned that with more rain expected, the ponding on the runway created a “major potential” for large aircraft to hydroplane and lose directional control when landing on the runway.

The early months of 2023, much like this year, brought heavy downpours after years of drought in the North Bay. During the past official water year, which began in early October 2022 and closed at the end of September 2023, the state was hit with 31 atmospheric rivers, the rain-laden storms that often hit Sonoma County hardest of all places on the West Coast.

During the 2021-22 rain year, the last year of the most recent drought, the airport received 27.2 inches, according to Alexis Clouser, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service.

The 2022-23 rain year saw a total of 42.6 inches at the airport. The current year, which is only half over, has seen 34.7 inches, according to weather service data.

Nearly four months ago, FAA Air Traffic Manager Alexander Arndt raised concerns about the speed bump in an email exchange with airport management. His comments echoed problems outlined in Stinson’s December and January emails.

In the Dec. 15, 2023, email, Arndt said the tower had received “numerous reports” from pilots who thought they had hit something when taking off. What they were experiencing, Arndt said, were the “divots/holes” they traveled over “on the approach end of (Runway 32),” which were also collecting “a fair amount of water” visible from the tower.

Arndt asked if the airport was able to address the issue and suggested issuing a notice to pilots until it was resolved. Such a notice is currently in place and describes the speed bump as “irregular surface.”

Dan Carls, who oversees the airport operations specialists — the facility’s jack-of-all trades watchmen, responsible for daily airfield inspections, emergency response and safety — responded, saying the airport was aware of the problem and had brought in engineers and a contractor to evaluate solutions and anticipated fixing the problem in early 2024.

Three months into the year, officials continue to say they’re monitoring the problem and plan to repair pavement around the bump at the end of June.

“The bump is approx. 1 inch high which is still within standard but still a concern,“ Carls wrote in December.

Earlier last year, in August, Carls emailed the airport’s contracted engineering firm, along with Stout and Stinson, to follow up on the “depressions” that had formed on the runway, which were being flagged by general aviation pilots. He noted that he had not heard any “feedback” from commercial pilots.

In August, the bump measured a half-inch, according to an inspection report Carls referenced in his email. He suggested using the measurement as a baseline to track conditions on the runway.

During a two-hour interview with The Press Democrat on March 14, airport and county infrastructure officials said they were monitoring the bump and weighing repair options.

On Friday, Stout confirmed the airport plans to grind and replace approximately 4 inches of asphalt on either side of the bump, but does not plan to carry out any repairs to the subbase.

Johannes Hoevertsz, director of the county’s public infrastructure department, which oversees the airport, said the speed bump “is not a big deal yet.”

Stout rejected any suggestion the runway is unsafe.

“We've had numerous airport airfield engineers looking at it and we've been talking about it,” Stout said. “The pavement’s not going to fail. It's not out of standard. It's a concern. And we're working on a fix.

“We would prefer not to have ponding at all,” he added. “But there’s ponding across all pavements. Over time, you get the slight depressions, and there will be various ponding.”

Augustine Ubaldi, an airport and railroad civil engineering expert with Robson Forensic, said speed bumps are “not desirable” on a runway. He added that he has experienced bumps at other airports, which have the potential to cause a plane to lift into the air prematurely during takeoff.

“You hit that bump and it puts you in the air, now you come down hard,” Ubaldi said.

He explained that unlike when driving a car, pilots generally don’t have the ability to slow down or drive around a bump when taking off and landing. Landing speeds for Boeing 737s are about 150 miles an hour, he said, adding that on takeoff the pilots are pushing the engine at full throttle.

“It’s pedal to the metal,” Ubaldi said.

He added that the FAA’s runway design standards call for an expected 20-year life. He said runways can last that long depending on how they are built and maintained, but may need rehabilitation after a decade.

“If you get 10 years out of asphalt pavement, you're doing good,” Ubaldi said. “This is the time when people start saying, ‘maybe we ought to consider repaving this runway.’”

The $55 million project completed by the county in 2014 extended the main runway from 5,102 feet to 6,000 feet, allowing larger aircraft to fly in and out and fulfilling federal safety mandates. While that project added 898 feet of new pavement for the extension, it only seal-coated the original runway.

Stout, in an email responding to Press Democrat questions, said regular inspections by airport staff and airfield civil engineers, assisted by software programs that help monitor runway condition, can extend the runway’s life to 30 years or more.

“In our case, and based on the inspections and routine maintenance activities, our program of paving in approximately 4 years is in line with the pavement conditions,” Stout said, referring to the $42 million project expected to roll out in 2028.

A deteriorating culvert

On the northern end of Runway 14/32, near where it intersects with the secondary runway, operations staff have encountered another problem. A deteriorating culvert underneath the runway has caused the asphalt to sink and crumble. The problem is documented in multiple records, including an annual FAA inspection from January 2024.

Chad McCormick, an FAA airport certification safety inspector who prepared the report, instructed the airport to address the issue “promptly” and document the area with photographs during daily inspections. The feds gave the airport until June 1 to make the repair.

On March 15, the day after The Press Democrat’s interview with Stout and Hoevertsz, the county issued a news release announcing planned repairs on the runway.

The county described the airport’s response to the FAA’s findings as “proactive.”

The release quoted Hoevertsz, who said the “proactive approach is a standard part of our maintenance routine, ensuring that we address any issues promptly to maintain safety and operational efficiency.”

But according to internal emails and daily inspection reports obtained by The Press Democrat, airport operations specialists were flagging concerns about the state of the runway long before the FAA instructed the airport to document the problem.

Last August, Eric Haggard, an airport operations specialist, emailed his supervisor, saying, “I have concerns about the current state of R/W 14/32, particularly the area of 32 just north of the aiming point lines.

“If you have not had eyes on the area please take time to look at (it) for yourself,” he wrote.

Recent photos attached to daily inspection reports have documented the progressing cracks and sinking runway.

Photos taken in late January near the north end of the main runway, show a 12-inch wide crack extending two feet in length. The crack includes a hole where the asphalt has given way about 50 feet west of the runway centerline.

A chunk of asphalt, along with smaller pavement debris, lies near the edge of the hole. In another photo, a measuring tape shows the hole’s depth is about four inches.

“These things don’t necessarily happen overnight,” said Ubaldi, the outside infrastructure expert, adding that issues related to the structural integrity of runways should be addressed immediately.

What’s more, runways need to be clear of debris that can damage aircraft, he said.

County officials plan to repair the deteriorating culvert in June once the soil has dried out. The repair will take about 20 hours of work and is estimated to cost about $600,000.

The FAA, in a written statement to Press Democrat questions about standards and inspections, said when pavement issues are complex and require more time to resolve, federal aviation officials expect airports to “ensure aircraft operations can continue safely” while the necessary engineering studies and investigations are being conducted.

“This is the case at STS,” the FAA’s written response said, using the identification code for the airport. “If at any time the pavement is not safe for aircraft operations, FAA regulations require the airport to close that area to air carrier operations.”

Notifying pilots

One of SEIU 1021’s most concerning critiques of the airport appeared in its formal response to the FAA’s 2024 inspection report. In its response, sent to at least three members of the Board of Supervisors, the union accused airport management of pressuring staff to downplay runway conditions in communications to pilots.

The FAA requires airports to communicate with pilots about real-time, adverse runway conditions through messages called FICON NOTAMs, which stands for field condition notice to air missions. The notifications must relay the presence of “contaminants” like water, ice or snow, as well as the amount present on the runway, and automatically generate a code ranging from 0 to 6, with lower numbers describing poorer braking conditions.

Under FAA criteria, water depths above ⅛ inch can produce a “3” condition code where “breaking deceleration OR directional control is between Medium and Poor,” according to FAA runway assessment criteria. The union said its airport operations specialists are being told to underreport the amount of water on the runway to produce a better code.

“If standing water is reported to be ½ inch too (sic) ¾ inch the airlines will not operate from our airport, so airport management instructs staff to falsify NOTAMS and indicate that there is ⅛ inch or less of isolated ponding or standing water on the runway,” SEIU’s response said. “This can make the airport and county liable for causing an accident due to false information.”

A review of internal emails revealed staff discussions about the issue.

“As soon as we put standing water into that report, the airlines want nothing to do with landing on that (runway). So, we backed off and called it ⅛ in. or less,” Stinson wrote in his Jan. 6, 2023, email alerting airport management to problematic runway conditions. “In all reality, we have ½-inch of standing water between our aiming points and first set of parallel distance markers.”

Stout rejected the union’s claim that airport management told staff to “falsify” communications.

“This is not correct; they have not been instructed to falsify NOTAMs or FICON reports,” Stout wrote in an email responding to Press Democrat questions.

Last December, when responding to air traffic control’s concern about the speed bump and water on the runway, Carls said the airport was finding the FICON NOTAMs system difficult to work with.

“During rain events we are submitting NOTAM’s but have had some difficulty reporting correct information that doesn’t automatically provide a RCAM value of 3,” Carls wrote.

Stout and Carls both separately told The Press Democrat that the system was new to the airport about 18 months ago and that its limitations were sometimes producing scores that did not align with the actual runway conditions.

Over Zoom, Carls demonstrated how the FICON NOTAM system produced condition codes that did not match what airport operations specialists were observing on the runway. The system was designed more for wintry conditions like snow and ice than water, he said.

“We're doing our best to reflect exactly what we have out there,” Carls said, adding that the airport is “trying to be as forthright and accurate as we can.”

In an email to The Press Democrat, Stout wrote that airport staff “worked with the FAA certification inspector and the Company that processes NOTAMS and FICON reports to adjust the language of the FICON to better reflect actual conditions.” Doing so yielded the airport a better runway score, he added.

The FAA told The Press Democrat in an email the system was established in 2016 and was adopted by the International Civil Aviation Organization in 2021 as a global standard.

“The reporting system encompasses over 20 types of contaminants that can exist on any airfield,” the FAA said, in response to the airport’s assertion that FICON NOTAMs are designed more for snow, slush and ice.

The FAA also noted that the airport was not adequately updating its FICON NOTAMs — a discrepancy flagged in the agency’s January inspection.

“The airport was not canceling or replacing its FICON NOTAMs when field conditions changed,” the FAA said in its email. “We advised the airport that FICON NOTAMs must provide accurate and current information.”

During the two-hour interview at the airport earlier this month, Stout said as a pilot he is not that concerned with the difference between ⅛-inch of standing water and ½-inch of water on the runway.

“When I look at runway landing distances I look at ponding,” Stout said. “If it's a half an inch, an eighth of an inch, that doesn't matter to me; there's ponding. How is that going to impact how I land on that runway? I'm going to look at it — it's wet.”

“A half-inch versus an eighth of an inch is not changing how you analyze using that runway,” he said.

In that same interview, Hoevertsz said airport operations specialists were making a “judgment call” when assessing the amount of water on the runway.

According to the FAA, a rule-making committee formed to study the effects of runway conditions determined that water begins to affect braking action when it’s over ⅛ inch. The committee included FAA representatives, airport operators and aircraft manufacturers and operators.

“A ‘wet’ condition of ⅛ inch or less tends to have minimal performance effects. A ‘water’ depth of more than ⅛ inch tends to have more significance (sic) performance effects,” the FAA said in written responses to Press Democrat questions.

Relying on accurate information

Airport operations specialists are making such assessments on a daily basis. It’s something that weighs heavily throughout their workday and even when they go home, the union said.

“Our airport operations specialists deeply care about the airport and air travel and the safety of our passengers and the crew and their own staff,” said Balzarini, the local union chapter president. “They'd really just like these issues addressed so that they can feel like everybody will be safe to fly out and in to this airport.”

The Press Democrat reached out to Avelo and Alaska Airlines for a reaction to runway and safety concerns at the airport.

Madison Jones, Avelo’s West Coast communications manager, deferred questions about airport infrastructure and operations to airport officials.

In a written statement, Alaska Airlines said: “Our pilots and dispatchers rely on information issued by the FAA and airport on runway surface conditions before and during every single flight. We would never land if runway conditions were unsafe.”

Asked to respond to claims that the airport was not accurately reporting the amount of water on the runway, Alaska Airlines said:

“We rely on accurate information from our airport partners to safely operate in and out of the communities we serve. We’re looking into the report you shared to ensure we’re receiving the most accurate information from STS.”

The FAA said accurately reporting airfield pavement conditions is important and added that airports are responsible for determining when runways are safe for use.

“The airport must maintain and promptly repair the pavement of each runway, taxiway, loading ramp, and parking area that is available for air carrier use,” the FAA wrote. “If the pavement is not safe or cannot be maintained to FAA requirements, the airport must limit or prohibit air carrier use of that runway. This could include closing a runway.”

You can reach Staff Writer Emma Murphy at 707-521-5228 or On Twitter @MurphReports.

You can reach Staff Writer Martin Espinoza at 707-521-5213 or On Twitter @pressreno.

About the Sonoma County airport

Constructed just before World War II on 339 acres outlying northwest Santa Rosa, the Charles M. Schulz-Sonoma County Airport was initially used as a military airfield.

The U.S. Fourth Air Corps trained fighter groups and squadrons at the site from 1943 to 1946. After the war it resumed operations as a civil airfield and underwent some growth through the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s.

Today, the airport offers service from three commercial airlines — Alaska Airlines, American Airlines and Avelo Airlines — with 15 nonstop destinations by May, as well as a newly renovated, $40 million terminal.

In 2023, it served a total 641,178 passengers. Avelo’s new hub could bring even more.

The airfield has two runways, with only one, Runway 14/32, capable of handling large commercial aircraft. That runway also is the site of many of the airport’s current infrastructure problems.

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