In October 2017, Southwest Airlines (NYSE: LUV) officially announced that it would start flying to Hawaii and planned to start selling tickets by the end of 2018. Last fall again, the management was sticking to this schedule.
However, Southwest Airlines has still not received the FAA's "ETOPS" approval that it must perform long flights over the water. As a result, it has not been able to publish the schedules of its scheduled flights to Hawaii, let alone start selling tickets. Fortunately for Southwest fans, the carrier has recently crossed one of the last hurdles to ETOPS approval. This could allow him to start selling tickets later this month.
FAA certification on track
On December 21, Southwest Airlines approved its ETOPS manuals by the FAA. So there were two main steps left in the certification process: tabletop exercises – simulations to test carrier procedures in case of emergency – and validation flights between the mainland and China. Hawaii with FAA inspectors on board.
Unfortunately, December 21 was the day the funding expired for much of the federal government – including the FAA. The partial government shutdown that lasted five weeks put an end to the ETOPS approval process.
Since the reopening of the government several weeks ago, Southwest Airlines is racing for the finish line. He quickly started his tabletop exercises with the FAA. And earlier this month, Southwest conducted its first validation flight for Hawaii – an Oakland-Honolulu flight designed to test the carrier's "long-distance navigation and communication procedures".
Southwest Airlines completed the tabletop exercise a few days ago, according to United States today. This decision allowed him to advance to the next stage of validation flights, which will test all ETOPS procedures. The first of these flights took place on February 14th. The carrier plans to conduct a single validation flight each day until it receives final clearance from the FAA.
Once the FAA receives approval, it will only take a day or two to Southwest to load its service schedules to Hawaii and start selling tickets. Unless unforeseen disturbances occur, this should occur before the end of February.
What can travelers expect?
Generally, airlines enter service on new routes only several months after announcing their route and commencing ticket sales. Southwest, however, is aiming for a faster schedule for ramping up its flights to Hawaii, mainly because of tremendous demand for this service.
The main constraint is to complete the additional training that pilots need to operate ETOPS flights. Management seemed to have indicated, when calling the fourth quarter results of Southwest, that it would take up to six months to form a full group of pilots. That said, the carrier could start operating a couple of flights with management pilots several weeks after receiving ETOPS clearance, and then significantly expand its flight schedule as early as April. This would allow Southwest Airlines to take advantage of the typical increase in the number of passengers around Easter.
Given that the initial Southwest validation flights were made between Oakland and Honolulu, it seems reasonable to believe that Oakland-Honolulu will be the first route to be launched in Hawaii. (Oakland is also home to the only Southwest Airlines crew base in California.) Next, the carrier will likely offer flights from Oakland to its other Hawaiian destinations – Kahului, Kona and Lihue. And by the summer, Southwest will likely begin serving Hawaii at least from California's three bespoke cities – Sacramento, San Diego and San Jose.
Southwest Airlines gave no indication of price. However, with the carrier looking to quickly gain market share in an already competitive market, vacationers will likely be able to find unbelievably low fares to travel to Hawaii by the end of the year.