Jan. 15 (UPI) — A shortage of federal transportation inspectors during the government shutdown is stalling work for some airlines.
Southwest Airlines can’t sell tickets for summer flights to Hawaii. Delta Air Lines has grounded its new Airbus A220 aircraft. And the launch of commercial air service at Paine Field airport near Seattle may be delayed as federal workers needed to inspect and sign off on the plans are furloughed or short-staffed.
The shutdown is in its 25th day.
Southwest waits for clearance
In May, Southwest announced it would begin selling tickets to four destinations in Hawaii by the end of 2018. The routes would fly from four California cities — Sacramento, Oakland, San Jose and San Diego.
For Southwest, it would represent the longest flight the airline has ever done over water, so it required new Extended-range Twin-engine Operational Performance Standards certification. That means in case of engine failure, the aircraft could fly on just one engine to the nearest airport for an emergency landing. Because the Hawaii flights are mostly over the Pacific Ocean, the nearest airport in that scenario would be more than an hour away.
Southwest, consequently, is in a holding pattern until it gets federal ETOPS certification.
“We are monitoring the government shutdown while we continue the internal work required to attain our goal of receiving ETOPS authorization,” a Southwest spokesman told UPI. “We still have additional steps to complete in the FAA’s ETOPS application process before we can receive authorization and announce any timeline for service to Hawaii.”
Once certified, Southwest will serve four airports in Hawaii — Daniel K. Inouye International Airport in Honolulu, Kahului Airport on Maui, Lihue Airport on Kauai and Ellison Onizuka Kona International Airport at Keahole.
Southwest Chief Revenue Officer Andy Watterson told Beat of Hawaii the airline would rather risk revenue loss by not selling the tickets than announce the flights before it knows it can actually fly them.
Southwest won’t base planes in Hawaii but will eventually offer service from island to island. The airline could also fly a route from Hawaii to Los Angeles and other California destinations in the future, Watterson said.
Stuck on the tarmac
Delta said it plans to fly its new Airbus A220 airliners by the end of January, but it still needs certification.
“Delta continues to monitor the situation and will work with the FAA to ensure that the A220 is fully certified when it enters our fleet,” Delta spokesman Morgan Durrant told UPI. “No customer disruption or impact to schedules are expected.”
The Airbus C-series is meant to be a smaller commercial aircraft with a long range, which would open smaller U.S. markets for longer routes.
Tuesday, Delta became the first U.S. carrier to document the impact of the shutdown. CEO Ed Bastion told CNBC it’s costing the airline $25 million a month, as fewer government employees and contractors travel the country.
Many Transportation Security Administration screeners are also calling in sick. That means longer lines at major airports, including Delta’s hub at Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport.
“We’re providing a lot of people into the queues, helping take any of the non-security TSA functions off of the TSA’s hands to the extent that we can,” Bastion said. “I think it’s hopefully going to be relatively smooth sailing for our customers.”
Shutdown could delay airport opening
Alaska Airlines was scheduled to start new commercial service out of Paine Field in Everett, Wash., next month, but the facility needs additional environmental clearance before that can happen.
The airport has a two-gate terminal and plans to serve 24 flights per day.
Federal Aviation Administration spokesman Gregory Martin said the shutdown could delay the start of commercial service on the field’s runways, 25 miles northeast of Seattle.
“Beyond that, I cannot speculate [about] its potential release as the shutdown continues,” Martin said.
The environmental approval is a formality, industry experts have said, but required nonetheless. Alaska Airlines has started selling tickets for the flights beginning Feb. 11 — as long as the government gets back on track.
“However, if the shutdown lasts much longer, there may be an impact,” a spokesman told the Daily Herald.
United Airlines is aiming to start service at Paine Field on March 31.
The government shutdown started Dec. 22 and is the longest in U.S. history. President Donald Trump and Congress are at an impasse over funding for a wall along the border with Mexico.