Southwest Airlines CEO Gary Kelly said now that the airline has approval to fly to Hawaii, that is the airline’s biggest priority for 2019. Photo by Bill Greenblatt/UPI | License Photo
Feb. 28 (UPI) — The Federal Aviation Administration has approved a new route to Hawaii for Southwest Airlines, which was delayed for weeks partly due to the government shutdown.

Southwest has been planning to begin flights to the islands from four California cities. To do it, the carrier needs Extended-range Twin-engine Operational Performance Standards certification, which allows its Boeing 737-800 aircraft to fly for extended periods of time over the ocean. The government shutdown delayed that approval until it was finally receivedWednesday. Southwest said Hawaii is its greatest priority this year.

“We’re going to Hawaii. We’re going big,” CEO Gary Kelly said.

Since the government re-opened on Jan. 25, Southwest pilots have been conducting test flights with FAA officials from California to Hawaii. They monitor everything from navigation to communications. Now with FAA approval, Southwest will be under scrutiny for the first six months, which is standard practice for new routes.

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Southwest first announced its Hawaii plans in October 2017 and planned to sell tickets in late 2018. That was delayed by the federal shutdown that began in December.

Southwest said the 35-day government shutdown cost it $60 million in the first quarter, four times more than originally thought. Most of the loss came from fewer government employees needing to travel. Also, many travelers opted not fly because many Transportation Security Administration screeners called in sick as opposed to working without pay.

The carrier’s entry into the Hawaii market could increase competition and lower fares. Average one-way fares are $45 lower than in cities Southwest doesn’t fly, a University of Virginia study found.

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Southwest will grow its daily flights by 5 percent this year, with half that growth coming from Hawaii.

“Were it not for Hawaii, we would absolutely be adding some more international routes and augmenting some of our flying,” Kelly said in an earnings call last month. “So it’s simply a matter of prioritization, and Hawaii, I think, deserves that kind of prioritization. It’s that big of an opportunity.”

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