In October 2017, Southwest Airlines (NYSE:LUV) officially announced that it would start flying to Hawaii, with plans to begin ticket sales by the end of 2018. As recently as last fall, management was sticking to that timetable.

However, Southwest Airlines still hasn't received the "ETOPS" approval from the FAA that it needs to conduct long over-water flights. As a result, it hasn't been able to publish schedules for its planned Hawaii flights, let alone begin ticket sales. Fortunately for Southwest fans, the carrier recently cleared one of the last obstacles to gaining ETOPS approval. That could allow it to begin ticket sales later this month.

FAA certification gets back on track

Southwest Airlines received FAA approval for its ETOPS manuals on Dec. 21. That left it with two major steps left in the certification process: tabletop exercises -- simulations to test the carrier's procedures for dealing with emergencies -- and validation flights between the mainland and Hawaii with FAA inspectors on board.

A Southwest Airlines plane taking off, with mountains in the background

The government shutdown delayed Southwest's launch of Hawaii flights. Image source: Southwest Airlines.

Unfortunately, Dec. 21 was the day funding expired for much of the federal government -- including the FAA. The partial government shutdown that lasted for the next five weeks stopped the ETOPS approval process in its tracks.

Ever since the government reopened several weeks ago, Southwest Airlines has been racing for the finish line. It quickly began its tabletop exercises with the FAA. And earlier this month, Southwest operated its first validation flight to Hawaii -- a flight from Oakland to Honolulu designed to test the carrier's "long-range navigation and communication procedures."

Southwest Airlines completed the tabletop exercises a few days ago, according to USA Today. This move allowed it to advance to the next stage of validation flights, which will test the full range of ETOPS procedures. The first of those flights occurred on Feb. 14. The carrier plans to operate a single validation flight every day until it receives the final sign-off from the FAA.

Once it has FAA approval in hand, it will take Southwest only a day or two to load its schedules for Hawaii service and begin ticket sales. Barring any unanticipated disruptions, that should happen before the end of February.

Check out the latest earnings call transcript for Southwest.

What can travelers expect?

Typically, airlines don't begin service on new routes until several months after they announce the route and begin ticket sales. However, Southwest is targeting a faster timetable for ramping up its Hawaii flights, mainly because there is a huge amount of pent-up demand for this service.

The main constraint is completing the additional training that pilots need to operate ETOPS flights. Management seemed to indicate on Southwest's fourth-quarter earnings call that it would take as much as six months to get a full complement of pilots trained. That said, the carrier could begin operating a few flights using management pilots several weeks after receiving ETOPS authorization and then expand its flight schedule significantly as soon as April. Doing so would allow Southwest Airlines to benefit from the typical surge in passenger volumes around Easter.

Given that Southwest's initial validation flights have operated between Oakland and Honolulu, it seems like a good bet that Oakland-Honolulu will be the first Hawaii route to be launched. (Oakland is also home to the only Southwest Airlines crew base in California.) Next, the carrier will probably branch out with flights from Oakland to its other Hawaiian destinations -- Kahului, Kona, and Lihue. And by the summer, Southwest will probably begin at least limited service to Hawaii from the three California gateway cities it has announced -- Sacramento, San Diego, and San Jose.

Southwest Airlines hasn't given any hints about pricing yet. However, with the carrier looking to gain share rapidly in what is already a competitive market, vacationers will probably be able to find some incredibly cheap fares for travel to Hawaii later this year.