Flying Alaska Airlines in and out of Sonoma Wine Country

A guest post courtesy of my father on his recent flight from Santa Rosa Airport…

Scott posted a story about his last visit to me, his esteemed parent, when Megan almost missed her flight because of the long drive from my home to SFO. This past weekend my girlfriend, Marsha, and I flew to Seattle to visit Scott and Megan, and rather than risk missing a flight out of SFO we took Horizon/Alaska non-stop from Santa Rosa (STS) to Seattle-Tacoma (SEA) and back.

picture of Santa Rosa airport tarmac

Santa Rosa (STS)

Santa Rosa, in the Sonoma wine country, has a wonderful little airport just a mile or two from my home. It’s little only in the sense that it has little commercial service: Horizon operates eight flights a day, to/from Seattle, Portland, Los Angeles, and San Diego. The airport has two nice runways, a control tower, and instrument approaches. When you fly small planes like I do, you’d be surprised at how many airports you just announce over the radio that you’re planning to land and ask if anyone else is in the area. Next year they are resurfacing and extending one runway to handle larger planes.

Santa Rosa was also the home of Charles Schulz, creator of the Peanuts cartoon, and a bit more famous than I am. But he, too, loved airplanes and flying. The airport carries his name, and there is lots of Peanuts memorabilia in the airport.

picture of Bombardier Q400

Bombardier Q400

Horizon flies Bombardier Q400 turbo-props holding 74 passengers . It’s only a two hour flight to Seattle, so the cramped confines are tolerable even for me.

Departing from STS couldn’t be simpler. There are no security wardens at the curb, so stopping and unloading is not an issue. There’s a strip of a dozen free parking spaces, good for three hours. Then the short term parking lot, free for two hours and a whopping $12 per day if you stay, and a long term lot at $9 per day. All are a short walk, and rental cars are right there also.picture of a bloody mary cocktail

In the terminal the Horizon desk was on my right. There’s a clerk there to take baggage and I saw a guy in a blue jumpsuit who looks like a baggage handler lurking about. We had one checked bag ($20) containing our dangerous toiletries and a couple of bottles of wine to share, and two cases of sparkling wine for Scott and Megan’s upcoming wedding. Each passenger departing STS, in the middle of wine country, is allowed to check one case of wine at no charge. We checked three items, got our boarding passes, and headed for the bar, outside the secure area.

We had time for a couple of Bloody Marys before braving the TSA search and seizure. There are seven, SEVEN!, TSA employees to search us. Remember, there are only 74 passengers on a full flight. Our friend Uwe used to say TSA stands for Thousands Standing Around. STS does its part.

picture of TSA area at Santa Rosa airport

TSA at Santa Rosa

Once past the gauntlet, there were about 74 plastic seats, two vending machines, and bathrooms. The bar is a better place to wait, but STS has recorded announcements telling you to get through screening early so you don’t miss your flight. The whole terminal is small enough you can see what’s happening and time your cocktails accordingly.

When our flight was ready, a clerk checked our boarding passes and we walked onto the apron in front of the plane. No jetways because the plane is so short (and it’s not a jet). The clerk who checked our boarding passes was the same one who gave us our boarding passes an hour earlier. It appears Alaska operates the flight with about three people on the ground, while our benevolent government needs seven.

picture of gate check luggage cart

As is standard, we’re allowed two carry on items per person. I had only my backpack, but it doesn’t fit in the overhead bin (it’s vertically challenged). I put it under the seat in front of me. But, for those in the know, there’s a better option: On the walk from the terminal to the plane is a wheeled cart called Horizon Airlines à la cart that looks like it sells hot dogs. It’s a self serve luggage cart like a gate check. Passengers can put ‘carry on’ luggage on the cart and it is put in the baggage area for free. At the destination they wheel out a cart and put those items on it. You pick up your stuff as you walk to the terminal. On the return trip I keep my magazine and jacket and put my backpack on the cart and travel much lighter. If you can get it through TSA and it’s not too big, it’s free luggage, just like the olden days.

The plane was narrow, the seats didn’t recline, and there’s no sink (just a bottle of hand sanitizer). But it saved me a long drive to SFO and its big airport annoyance. I’ll get to Seattle in two hours. (I got up at 7, spent an hour at the gym, went home and changed, got to the airport, had two cocktails, shipped Scott’s wine for free, and arrived at Seattle by 1 PM. The alternative was getting up at 7, no gym, three hours driving to SFO, expensive parking, no free checking, big airport hassles and long lines, and getting to Seattle at 3 PM.)

picture of plane interior

Departure was kind of fun. At STS they don’t bother with the tug to push back. They just rev up the right engine, leave the left at idle, and make a U-turn back toward the taxiway.

We had two stewardesses on board. It’s the end of a five day trip for them. One could barely smile to save her life, but the other was pretty bubbly. They did two rounds of beverage service, plus we got free Biscoff Gourmet Center — two little cookies. On the trip home it was Crunchy Snack Mix. There were also boxed snacks for sale. They have the usual free soft drinks, and wine and liquor for sale. However, the bargain is the beer. FREE BEER!!! I love Alaska. It was a dark stout, something local to the Northwest, poured in a cup from a large bottle, and did I mention FREE? I like it.

Inside SEA, I was worried about the two cases of wine. I trekked through this huge annoying airport toward baggage claim while Marsha took a bus ride to another county for a rental car. Downstairs I found that Horizon always treats the wine as ‘oversized luggage’ and hand carries it to a claim area at floor level. It doesn’t go up the conveyor and crash down to the carousel like other luggage. I needed a luggage cart. Five dollars to use a luggage cart! I hate big airports. (I’d get a quarter back if I returned it to the rack; Not worth it.) I put the two boxes of wine, my backpack, and Marsha’s checked suitcase on the cart and went outside to wait for her to return in the rental car.

Overall, Alaska/Horizon made this an excellent experience. We had a nice visit with Scott and Megan, including a day at the History of Flight Museum at BFI (another post). I have to mention our dinner at RN74 on Friday evening. It was busy and we waited a half hour past our reservation time for a table, and we were hungry. They more than made up for the delay with complimentary appetizers and awesome service and food. It was well worth the wait. If you’re in Seattle and need to meet a minimum spend on a new credit card, this is the place to do it.

Our return trip was pretty much the same, except for the long lines at the big airport in Seattle. The flight attendants were a little brighter. The free beer was still free and excellent.

Horizon and STS are definitely one of the best ways to fly out of (or visit) the Sonoma Valley wine country, best in the US.

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  • Frank

    Thoroughly enjoyed your post!!

  • Adam

    You should try flying into Traverse City Michigan ala the Hamptons of Michigan and the airport stands up to that name.