Southwest is just waiting for its certification

Maui workers report for duty this week

With the 35-day government shutdown over, Southwest Airlines is hoping to kickstart service to Hawaii soon — but it all depends on what it can get done in the coming weeks, and whether the government stays open after Feb. 15.

“If the government stays open . . . our hope would be to be able to sell (tickets) by the end of February and potentially fly in March,” Laura Nieto, director of community outreach for Southwest Airlines, said during a visit to Maui on Monday. “Again, we’re very dependent on the FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) and the process.”

Since the partial government shutdown began Dec. 22, Southwest has been in limbo, awaiting certification from the FAA so it can begin flights from California to Hawaii. The airline was able to get its manuals and procedures approved on the last day before the government shutdown, which was a “big milestone,” said Kelly Knox, senior specialist in community outreach for Southwest.

“It was a huge relief,” Knox said. “We were watching the clock tick, and we pulled it off. We’re grateful to our friends with the FAA for being so diligent and making sure that was done.”

Knox said the next steps for Southwest include undergoing simulated flight scenarios in a room with FAA officials. They’ll then practice the scenarios during actual flights between California and Hawaii.

Nieto and Knox said that Southwest’s debut in the Hawaiian Islands depends on how quickly the government gets back up and running. Federal employees went back to work Monday, three days after President Donald Trump signed a measure to fund the government through Feb. 15 and end the longest shutdown in U.S. history.

When asked whether it was possible for Southwest to complete the certification process by Feb. 15, Nieto said that “we are working closely with our FAA counterparts in a very collaborative way to try to get that done if we can.”

Southwest announced in October 2017 that it planned to enter the Hawaii travel market, and last spring the Dallas-based airline said it would offer flights to Honolulu, Lihue, Kahului and Kona from four California cities — Oakland, San Diego, San Jose and Sacramento. The airline had hoped to begin service to Hawaii by the end of 2018 but was stalled by the shutdown.

During a visit to Maui in May, Southwest President Tom Nealon said the airline could bring lower fares to what he saw as a “fairly low competition market” in Hawaii, though he declined to say how much tickets would cost or how many flights Southwest would offer.

The airline plans to build up its Mainland flight frequency and capacity before branching out to interisland flights.

“We have not announced our service patterns or what the schedule looks like, so it’s all based on when we are able to start service and making sure our operations groups are ready,” Knox said. “We had Maui employees report this week. You might see some more folks around the airport getting us ready for operations.”

Knox said Southwest will employ about 30 people on Maui. She said a team is also preparing for the airline’s arrival at the Daniel K. Inouye International Airport in Honolulu.

“Our people and our facilities are in place,” Knox said. “We are just waiting for that certification.”

* Colleen Uechi can be reached at cuechi@mauinews.com.