Shutdown stalls launch of Southwest’s Hawaii flights

  • Ramp workers prepare a Southwest Airlines Boeing 737 for departure on July 14 at Minneapolis International Airport in Minneapolis. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski, File)

Southwest Airlines was expected to begin flights to Hawaii in early 2019, but the ongoing federal government shutdown has delayed its plans.

Southwest announced in 2017 that it was preparing to offer flights to Hawaii, but those plans had to undergo an application and certification process with the Federal Aviation Administration, which can take more than a year. That process was not complete by late December, when the federal government shut down.

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One of the last stages of the FAA’s process is certification for Extended-Range Twin-Engine Operational Performance Standards, or ETOPS. Ross Birch, president of the Island of Hawaii Visitors Bureau, said all planes and airline staff that make extended flights over water must be ETOPS certified.

“Some airplanes come with ETOPS certification, but since Southwest hasn’t had any flights over the ocean this long, they have to do it all for the first time,” Birch said.

However, the shutdown of the federal government, now in its fifth week, resulted in thousands of federal employees being furloughed, including those at the FAA who would oversee the ETOPS certification process. Until the certification process is complete, Southwest cannot sell tickets to Hawaii.

Birch said he understands Southwest is “ready to go” after it receives the ETOPS certification, although he said he is unsure how quickly the certification could be resolved after the shutdown ends.

Once Southwest is ETOPS certified, Birch said there will be a lag between when the airline begins selling tickets to Hawaii and when the first flights reach the state.

Beyond the delays to Southwest flights, Birch said the shutdown has been “cramping our style” in terms of island tourism.

While Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, one of the Big Island’s major tourist attractions, is partially open to visitors in spite of the shutdown thanks to donations, Birch said confusion about the park’s status is “not comfortable,” particularly during a traditionally tourist-heavy time of year.

“Our biggest concern is to bring back demand for the island, which we’ve been doing,” Birch said. “Our main goal is to get bodies and feet on those flights when they start.”

Birch said the visitors bureau will increase marketing in California when Southwest obtains its final certification. Flights to Hawaii will arrive from four airports in California, where the bureau already markets extensively.

The California airports include Oakland Metropolitan Airport, San Diego International Airport, Mineta San Jose International Airport and Sacramento International Airport.

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Flights will arrive from those airports at Daniel K. Inouye International Airport in Honolulu, Ellison Onizuka International Airport in Kona, Kahului Airport on Maui and Lihue Airport on Kauai. Interisland flights between the four Hawaii airports also will be available.

Email Michael Brestovansky at mbrestovansky@hawaiitribune-herald.com.

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