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Lawyers who successfully argued Musk pay package was illegal seek $5.6 billion in Tesla stock
Critical asset just had biggest fall on record (Ad)
Peace, music and memories: As the 1960s fade, historians scramble to capture Woodstock's voices
Sports analytics may be outnumbered when it comes to artificial intelligence
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Critical asset just had biggest fall on record (Ad)
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DOW   39,087.38
QQQ   445.61
Lawyers who successfully argued Musk pay package was illegal seek $5.6 billion in Tesla stock
Critical asset just had biggest fall on record (Ad)
Peace, music and memories: As the 1960s fade, historians scramble to capture Woodstock's voices
Sports analytics may be outnumbered when it comes to artificial intelligence
This is the #1 Stock to Buy for the AI Tidal Wave (Ad)
In Senegal's capital, Nicaragua is a hot ticket among travel agents as migrants try to reach US
Norway's hospitalized king gets a pacemaker in Malaysia after falling ill during vacation
Critical asset just had biggest fall on record (Ad)
S&P 500   5,137.08
DOW   39,087.38
QQQ   445.61
Lawyers who successfully argued Musk pay package was illegal seek $5.6 billion in Tesla stock
Critical asset just had biggest fall on record (Ad)
Peace, music and memories: As the 1960s fade, historians scramble to capture Woodstock's voices
Sports analytics may be outnumbered when it comes to artificial intelligence
This is the #1 Stock to Buy for the AI Tidal Wave (Ad)
In Senegal's capital, Nicaragua is a hot ticket among travel agents as migrants try to reach US
Norway's hospitalized king gets a pacemaker in Malaysia after falling ill during vacation
Critical asset just had biggest fall on record (Ad)

Southwest Airlines Q4 2023 Earnings Call Transcript


Listen to Conference Call View Latest SEC 10-K Filing

Participants

Corporate Executives

  • Julia Landrum
    Vice President of Investor Relations
  • Robert E. Jordan
    President & Chief Executive Officer
  • Tammy Romo
    Executive Vice President & Chief Financial Officer
  • Ryan Green
    Executive Vice President & Chief Commercial Officer
  • Andrew Watterson
    Chief Operating Officer
  • Whitney Eichinger
    Senior Vice President & Chief Communications Officer

Analysts

Presentation

Operator

Hello, everyone, and welcome to the Southwest Airlines Fourth Quarter 2023 Conference Call. My name is Gary, and I'll be moderating today's call. This call is being recorded, and a replay will be available on southwest.com in the Investor Relations section. After today's prepared remarks, there will be an opportunity to ask questions. [Operator Instructions]

At this time, I'd like to turn the call over to Ms. Julia Landrum, Vice President of Investor Relations. Please go ahead, ma'am.

Julia Landrum
Vice President of Investor Relations at Southwest Airlines

Thank you so much, and welcome everyone to Southwest Airlines fourth quarter 2023 conference call. In just a moment, we will share our prepared remarks, after which we'll be happy to take your questions.

On the call with me today, we have our President and CEO, Bob Jordan; Executive Vice President and CFO, Tammy Romo; Executive Vice President and Chief Commercial Officer, Ryan Green; and Chief Operating Officer, Andrew Watterson.

A quick reminder that we will make forward-looking statements which are based on our current expectation of future performance, and our actual results could differ materially from expectations. Also we will reference our non-GAAP results, which exclude special items that are called out and reconciled to GAAP results in our press release. So please refer to the disclosures in our press release from this morning and visit our Investor Relations website for more information.

With that, I'm pleased to turn the call over to you, Bob.

Robert E. Jordan
President & Chief Executive Officer at Southwest Airlines

Thank you, Julie, and thank you everyone for joining the call today. As we close the books on 2023, I want to take a moment to reflect on how far we've come and more importantly, I want to thank the people of Southwest Airlines for their dedication, their warrior spirit, their heart, and ultimately for their incredible resilience.

At this time last year, we were getting back on our feet from the disruption following Winter Storm Elliott. We quickly mobilized to put immediate mitigation efforts in place while simultaneously building a robust plan to prepare us for future extreme winter weather disruptions. We were also working to restore our network, address our staffing needs, and return our aircraft to full utilization. And of course, we were in the middle of negotiations with the majority of our labor unions.

I'm incredibly pleased to be on the other side of 2023 and to be able to share all the progress we made last year. We completed a comprehensive winter weather action plan which has already been successfully tested in multiple weather -- winter weather events, including the extended nationwide winter storms we experienced this month, but also in other types of disruptions such as hurricanes, severe fog in Chicago and the Maui fires. Through all of those events, our aircraft and crew networks remained stable. We recovered quickly and we were able to minimize the impact on our customers.

We also got fully staffed, restored our network and reached full utilization of our fleet. Our network is in a healthy place and it shows in our operational improvement. In fact, we improved in nearly every operational metric. Our completion factor performance in particular was fantastic at 99% for the full year, with fourth quarter being our best quarterly performance in more than a decade at 99.6%.

We also made significant progress on our labor agreements, including ratification earlier this week of an agreement that secures industry leading pay for our best-in-class pilots. We have now successfully reached ratification on nine contracts in little over a year, demonstrating our commitment to providing competitive market compensation packages for our people. This is a huge accomplishment and I would like to thank all those who have tirelessly supported those negotiations.

Of course, all this was in addition to a host of other accomplishments, the rollout of a new revenue management system, the launch of multiple customer experience improvements, and the negotiation of a very cost effective order book with Boeing. The order book allows us to continue the modernization of our fleet and provides the opportunity to flex our growth plans up or down over the long-term.

We also made rapid adjustments to capacity for both 2023 and 2024 and put in place significant network adjustments in response to changing demand patterns. These changes reduced our planned 2024 year-over-year capacity increase to roughly 6%, all of which is carryover from 2023 network restoration. So there'll be no net new additional capacity in 2024 as we work to mature our route network.

Moving to our performance, we continued to be very pleased with the core demand for our product. We saw close-in performance strengthen in November and December for both leisure and corporate travel. This led fourth quarter 2023 to be yet another record at just over $6.8 billion in operating revenue and we are seeing that strength continue into 2024. This demand strength combined with about $1.5 billion in incremental year-over-year pre-tax profit from our network optimization efforts and the contributions from our portfolio of strategic initiatives is driving us to expect additional revenue records and year-over-year operating margin expansion, despite cost pressures from new labor agreements and increased aircraft maintenance expense.

Our network changes are materially in place with the March schedule where we expect to hit a profitability inflection point. While still early in the quarter, our initiatives are delivering towards our revenue target and we expect to exit the quarter with a strong operating margin for the month of March.

While we have significant inflationary pressures from our new labor agreements, we have initiatives underway that will begin to help counter these pressures with efficiency improvements. These include everything from scheduling techniques to digital modernization and we planned in 2024 with headcount flat to down as compared with year end 2023. As we slow hiring to levels that are at or below our attrition rate, that will drive efficiency gains in 2024 with more to come in 2025. All of this supports a solid plan with a line of sight to improve our financial returns and earn our cost of capital in 2024.

While this represents notable progress, I want to be clear, earning adequate and consistent returns ROIC well in excess of WACC is our financial North Star and it's not negotiable. We will be relentless in executing against our plans and we will continue to make adjustments, including capacity adjustments if needed, until we deliver those results. Adequate and consistent returns is how we have created decades of shareholder value and it continues to be our key focus. Our current set of initiatives is tracking nicely and we will provide you a lot more detail later this year at Investor Day. In addition, we're working on a next set of initiatives to support -- in support of sustainable returns over time.

In closing, we made tremendous progress in 2023 and we finished the year, a much stronger company. We will finish this year stronger again. We are fully committed to improving the customer experience and delivering on our long-term financial targets, including generating returns for our shareholders. As always, I have confidence in our people and our business model and I am particularly proud of our people for their dedication and their resilience. They remain our absolute greatest asset, the heart and soul of our company, and the ultimate source of pride for me.

And with that, I will turn it over to Tammy.

Tammy Romo
Executive Vice President & Chief Financial Officer at Southwest Airlines

Thank you, Bob, and hello, everyone. As Bob mentioned, 2023 wasn't without its challenges, but we are stronger and ready to take on another year and that is all thanks to our incredible employees. We delivered $986 million in profits for the year and our fourth quarter net income of $233 million both when excluding special items, was on the better side of our expectations.

We prioritized the restoration of our network and operational reliability in 2023, which has taken a lot of resources and focus. With our operations now stable and the network fully restored, we can direct much more focus and energy to consistently delivering a strong financial performance along with delivering operational excellence.

We have incredible strengths to build upon and the levers we need to optimize and regain our position as an industry leader. We will be steadfast in our efforts to make meaningful progress this year in support of our long-term goal of generating consistent returns well in excess of our cost of capital.

Ryan and Andrew will cover the headway we've made with our revenue and operations performance in detail. So I'll start with our cost performance before moving to fleet and balance sheet.

Overall, our unit costs, excluding special items were down 16% year-over-year in the fourth quarter. Our fourth quarter average fuel price of $3 per gallon was right at the low end of guidance, primarily due to jet fuel prices in the LA market, steadying after significantly spiking in mid-November. Thankfully, market prices dropped as we moved into this year and our fuel price guidance of $2.70 to $2.80 per gallon for the first quarter and $2.55 to $2.65 per gallon for the full year and the welcome reduction in fuel cost compared with 2023.

We are currently 60% hedged here in first quarter and 57% hedged for the full year, with more meaningful hedge protection kicking in at Brent prices around $90 per barrel. That's a higher strike price than where our 2023 hedges began to provide meaningful protection, which was closer to $70 per barrel. This is reflective of the current market conditions and elevated cost of hedging.

We continue to prudently add to our fuel hedge position for 2026, nearing 20% hedged and are currently 46% hedged in 2025, in line with our goal to be roughly 50% hedged in each calendar year. While we are not fully immune to the volatile energy market, I am grateful that our hedging positions provide meaningful protection against catastrophic increases while also allowing us to participate fully when market prices decline.

Moving to non-fuel cost, our fourth quarter year-over-year CASM-X decrease of 18.1% was on the favorable side of our guidance range, driven primarily by elevated operating expenses and lower capacity levels in fourth quarter 2022 as a result of the operational disruption. This was partially offset by general inflationary cost pressures, including higher labor rates for all employee work groups as well as elevated maintenance expense, both of which are sticky as we move into 2024.

I also want to congratulate our pilots on their newly ratified contract. Obviously, the market for pilot wages has increased significantly and it is important that we keep pace to reward our employees appropriately. As a result of the new agreement, we recorded a change in estimate for the pilot's ratification bonus and you can find the details and breakout of the accounting treatment in this morning's press release.

Looking to first quarter 2024, we currently estimate our CASM-X to increase in the range of 6% to 7% year-over-year. Roughly 3 points to 4 points of this estimated increase is driven by higher overall 2024 labor costs and market wage rate accruals. The remainder of the first quarter CASM-X increase is primarily due to year-over-year pressure and maintenance expense driven by rate increases, as well as an increase in maintenance activity as our -800s are coming off their honeymoon period

Speaking to full year cost, our CASM-X guidance of a 6% to 7% increase year-over-year is also essentially driven by labor and maintenance cost pressures. Roughly 4 points to 5 points is attributable to labor and roughly 2 points is from maintenance for the reasons I previously covered. While we accrue for market wage rates, the recently ratified pilot contract contributes the majority of the labor CASM-X increase this year due to a step up in wage rates, work rule changes and enhanced benefits.

As Bob mentioned, we are steadfastly focused on regaining efficiencies to help counter some of the structural cost pressures as we look to control what's controllable. We are not satisfied with our current financial performance and we will work relentlessly until we produce the financial strength and returns you should expect from Southwest Airlines.

We have a solid 2024 plan which includes the benefit of roughly $1.5 billion in incremental year-over-year pre-tax profits from our strategic initiatives. The vast majority of the initiatives delivering value in 2024 are revenue-related, contributing well over $1 billion of the $1.5 billion total expected incremental benefit. And our network optimization and market maturation efforts are providing the bulk of that revenue lift. The balance of the revenue generating benefits come from incremental managed business initiatives, primarily increased GDS participation.

The incremental cost benefit relates primarily to fleet modernization and early yields from other operating efficiency efforts such as digital service modernization and our turn initiative. We will go into a lot more detail on our initiative portfolio at Investor day later this year. While early, our plan provides significant progress towards our long-term goal to generate ROIC well in excess of our cost of capital. Again, more details to come at our 2024 Investor Day.

Now turning to our fleet during 2023, we received a total of 86 -8 deliveries, one more than planned and retired 39 -700s, two less than planned, ending the year with a total of 817 aircraft. We consistently mentioned the flexibility in our fleet modernization efforts being a key competitive advantage, and the minor shifting of deliveries and retirements throughout 2023 validates our ability to thoughtfully plan and execute given the continued supply chain challenges facing Boeing.

Moving into 2024, there is continued uncertainty around the timing of expected Boeing deliveries and the certification of the MAX 7 aircraft. Our fleet plans remain nimble and currently differs from our contractual order book with Boeing. We are planning for 79 aircraft deliveries this year and expect to retire roughly 45 -700s and four -800s resulting in a net expected increase of 30 aircraft this year.

Taking our current plan into consideration, we expect our 2024 capex to be in the range of $3.5 billion to $4 billion. After finalizing our 2024 plans and refining capacity levels to better reflect the current environment, we now expect full year 2024 capacity to be up about 6% year-over-year. And our 2024 capacity plans do not currently include any MAX 7 flying. So if certification of that aircraft continues to push out, our 2024 capacity plans will not be impacted.

In addition, we are also reducing our total fuel expense with our fleet modernization initiative, as we continue to bring on more fuel efficient -8 aircraft and retire -700s. We saw a nearly 3% year-over-year improvement in fuel efficiency in 2023 and expect continued improvement this year. In addition to fuel savings, our fleet modernization initiative is a key component in reaching our environmental sustainability goals.

Lastly, I am proud to report that our balance sheet strength continues to be a financial backbone as we move into another year. We remain the only U.S. airline with an investment grade rating by all three rating agencies. We ended the year with $11.5 billion in cash and short-term investments, returned $428 million to our shareholders through dividend payments in 2023, paid $85 million to retire debt and finance lease obligations in 2023 and continue to be in a net cash position. We expect to pay a modest $29 million in debt payments this year and continue to expect interest income to well exceed our expected interest expense of $249 million in 2024.

So we are pleased to have a plan for significant financial improvement to be made this year. With some major milestones behind us, such as restoring our network, becoming fully staffed, fully utilizing our fleet and so much more, our sights are set on expanding margins and covering our cost of capital in 2024. And as I close, I'd like to sincerely thank our people for another year of hard work and dedication to the mission and vision of Southwest Airlines. I am so grateful for each and every one of you. You are truly my heroes.

And with that, I will turn it over to Ryan.

Ryan Green
Executive Vice President & Chief Commercial Officer at Southwest Airlines

Thank you, Tammy, and hello, everyone. Let me start by sharing that I am very pleased with the overall demand for our business, the execution from our amazing people and the engagement of our loyal customers.

Fourth quarter unit revenue finished slightly better than expectations at down 8.9% year-over-year. The improvement was driven by a strengthening of close-in revenue performance in November and December for both leisure and corporate business travel, as well as the continuation of overall strong holiday performance and market share gains from our managed business initiatives. I'm pleased to report that we saw no bookings impact from last year's operational disruption during this past holiday season, which speaks to the operational improvements we have made over the last year as well as the enduring loyalty from our customers.

In addition, fourth quarter was another quarter with multiple records set, including record fourth quarter operating revenue and passenger revenue, as well as an all time quarterly record for passengers carried. Fares also performed well in fourth quarter with our average passenger fare up about 2.5% year-over-year. And all in all, our fourth quarter operating revenues were up over $1 billion relative to fourth quarter of 2019. And while we still have work to do on our revenue performance, I remain very pleased with our progress.

Looking to our full year results, we grew 2023 operating revenues nearly 10% year-over-year to a record $26 billion, accompanied by record passengers, record Rapid Rewards revenue and record ancillary revenue. And speaking of records, we set operating revenue records in each quarter of the year and for the full year of 2023.

As we move into 2024, we are seeing the momentum continue and we're seeing early but highly encouraging benefits from our network optimization efforts, and we expect first quarter unit revenue growth of 2.5% to 4.5% when compared to the same period last year. This represents a solid sequential improvement in year-over-year unit revenue performance, even when normalized for the 5 point tailwind from the prior year disruption impact.

In fact, our guide would imply first quarter 2024 nominal RASM to be about 5 points higher than our normal seasonal sequential average when compared with nominal fourth quarter of 2023 RASM. We currently have about 60% of expected bookings for first quarter already in place, slightly above normal, and we are seeing better-than-normal sequential RASM performance, further demonstrating that our network optimization efforts are working.

As we refined our capacity plans for this year, we've been able to pull in even more flying out of the shoulder periods, which we believe will be a tangible contributor in boosting our performance. While our forecast doesn't assume any material increase in demand for domestic air travel in 2024, we do have a line of sight to double-digit operating revenue growth year-over-year, driven largely by the network and initiative driven revenue that Tammy detailed. Included in that, of course, is our efforts to drive managed business.

We are very pleased with the performance of our managed business initiatives and the success of our Southwest Business team. In the past year, we had a solid increase in market share more than 3 points in the managed business space, and I'm very proud we improved our business travel news ranking from fourth place in the industry in 2019 to second place in 2023. We were the only carrier on the survey to receive an increased total score two years in a row, while each of our competitor's scores have declined over that same period. It's another example of the progress we're making against the industry in the managed business space.

Of course, we're also continuing our efforts to improve our customer experience and our Rapid Rewards program. We are seeing improved customer satisfaction scores with our WiFi product as we proceed with our infrastructure investments there, and more aircraft are joining the fleet every day with in-seat power and larger bins on board.

We've made several enhancements to our award-winning Rapid Rewards program, including making it easier to reach our A-List and A-List preferred levels, and we will soon be rolling out the ability to book travel with a combination of cash plus Rapid Reward points later this spring.

We introduced customer bag tracking to reduce friction in our customer's travel experience, and we look forward to sharing more on our larger digital hospitality modernization plan in the coming months. All of this is designed to make it easier to fly with us and give customers even more reasons to choose Southwest.

As we enter 2024, we have a very solid plan that leverages the unparalleled strengths of our people, our product, our loyalty program, and our route network, and we look forward to delivering on continued progress towards our long-term financial goals.

With that, Andrew, over to you.

Andrew Watterson
Chief Operating Officer at Southwest Airlines

Thank you, Ryan, and hello, everyone. I'd like to start out by recognizing our people for their efforts in successfully managing through four different named winter storms which were spread over 11 days and impacted a wide portion of our route network with intense weather conditions and frigid temperatures this month. These overlapping winter systems definitely put our winter operations preparedness plan to the test.

Overall, I'm very pleased with how well we managed the storms. The sheer magnitude of these weather systems resulted in significant cancellations, the vast majority of which were proactive on our part. Our cancellations were made 14 hours in advance on average, and 70% were canceled with at least six hours in advance. As you can imagine, providing that much notice improves the customer experience. In fact, we have found that it can result in NPS scores that approximate those customers with no disruption to their itinerary.

Overall, our cancellation rates were in line with the industry and were primarily isolated to the operations directly impacted by the storms. With fewer than 2% of our cancellations tied to crew scheduling challenges, this is a significant contrast to what we experienced with Winter Storm Elliot in December 2022. The improvement is directly the result of last year's winter operations investments and protocols.

I echo Bob's sentiments that we are in a much better spot today than a year ago. In the past year, we not only completed the winter operations preparedness plan, we also delivered on a long list of initiatives to modernize our operation with benefits for both our customers and our employees. Our people had the staffing, equipment, tools and infrastructure to operate safely and at pace in winter weather.

The good news is that all the hard work showed up in our operational performance. We closed out 2023 with only about 1% of our total flights canceled, and we improved in basically every metric. Our completion factor, on time performance, early morning originators, turn compliance and turn differential and mishandled bag rate, all showed substantial year-over-year improvement, which in turn led to a year-over-year improvement in our trip net promoter score.

As we enter 2024, we will focus on continuing to build on our 2023 priority of operating quality. We ranked fourth place in the 2023 Wall Street Journal airline quality metrics, despite several of the metrics covering the Winter Storm Elliot period. Our goal is to move up this ranking and ultimately be ranked number one.

We were also doubled down on three additional priorities, ringing out operating inefficiencies, increasing asset productivity, and creating operating leverage by reducing structural costs. These are multi-year initiative-based efforts which will begin yielding material benefits in 2025. We will share more on these in the coming months.

Finally, I'd like to close by congratulating our pilots on their new contract. I'd also like to thank all the negotiating teams who have worked so hard to reach nine agreements since October of 2022. These teams work tirelessly and I am pleased we can reward employees with well deserved pay increases and quality of life enhancements. We remain in negotiations with two union representative groups, TWU 555 and TWU 556, and we look forward to reaching agreements that reward those employees for their contributions.

So with that, I'll turn it back over to Julia.

Julia Landrum
Vice President of Investor Relations at Southwest Airlines

Thank you Andrew. This completes our prepared remarks. We will now open the line for analyst questions. We would like to speak with as many of you as possible, so we ask that you limit yourself to one question and a brief follow-up if necessary. Please go ahead with the first question.


Questions and Answers

Operator

[Operator Instructions] The first question comes from Ravi Shanker with Morgan Stanley. Please go ahead.

Ravi Shanker
Analyst at Morgan Stanley

Thanks. Good afternoon, everyone. Maybe we can start with the $1.5 billion kind of initiatives. And any chance you can share more detail there, kind of details on what the different contributing items are? And also how much visibility do you have into that, trying to get a sense of how much of that may be in the bag, so to speak?

Robert E. Jordan
President & Chief Executive Officer at Southwest Airlines

Hey Ravi, it's Bob. I'll start and then maybe Ryan can jump in. Obviously, a lot of the year-over-year improvement counts on the initiatives delivering, and I feel very confident about that. I mean, some of this is our Investor Day initiatives continuing to perform. And then on top of that, you have new things, a lot of which -- the majority of which are the network improvements, which, as you know, are in place materially beginning in March and then fully in place by early summer.

And -- so we have a lot of confidence in thought certainly the Investor Day initiatives delivering. And while it's early in the quarter, we have some line of sight into obviously March and how well the network change and optimization is delivering. And we're on track there. It's things like -- it's basically adjusting for new demand patterns. It's adjusting, you know, what they are, the Tuesday, Wednesday shoulder flying, those kinds of things. But no, I feel like we're on track to hit that incremental $1.5 billion. Again, most of that is revenue, about two-thirds of that is revenue-related.

Ryan, do you want to add anything?

Ryan Green
Executive Vice President & Chief Commercial Officer at Southwest Airlines

Yes. Of the revenue initiatives there, a lot -- most of that is the network optimization and then continuing maturation of some of our development markets, development market percentage of mix continues to get more back to normal ranges by the end of 2024. So that certainly will help. But obviously, we've been able to watch those development markets mature throughout their curve here over the last few years.

As it relates to the other revenue initiatives that are in place, they will continue to mature and then also provide additional benefit as we -- as the airline grows. A significant portion of that is the managed business initiatives that we've been talking about. And I'm very confident in how that -- those sets of initiatives continue to perform. We're definitely on track. Managed business got better in the fourth quarter from how it was performing in the third quarter, and then we're expecting another sequential improvement here in the first quarter with managed business. We can see that in place and how bookings are coming in, in January and as we begin to get into the February booking curve here.

So yes, everything that we can see how we finished the fourth quarter and then what we can see here in the first quarter and going forward makes me very confident.

Ravi Shanker
Analyst at Morgan Stanley

Very helpful. And maybe as a quick follow-up, would love to get your thoughts on the apparent premiumization of the domestic product. Obviously, you guys are committed to single cabin, but does that give you kind of more room to raise RASM across the product or kind of just what would your response to that be?

Ryan Green
Executive Vice President & Chief Commercial Officer at Southwest Airlines

Well, premium certainly is a hot topic in the industry, and it's something that we watch -- that we're watching closely. We also talk to our customers on a regular basis. This is one of the things that we continue to get their feedback on. And I think we talked about it some on the last call. As you think about premium, historically in the industry, premium revenue has been highly cyclical. This is one of those times where carriers are adding premium seats into the cabin, but when the economic cycle shifts, they're pulling seats, premium seats out of the cabin. And so as we see kind of the recovery here from the pandemic, we'll have to see how these trends persist and go forward.

I think overall RASM, obviously, we follow that and how we compare relative to the industry, and we're working on improving that as we go forward here. I will say that ancillary revenue, the majority of which is boarding products, our early bird product as well as our upgraded boarding product is doing very well. We're having record ancillary revenue performance. And so I think, yes, we have a single cabin, but we're able to improve RASM and grow ancillary revenue through some of those boarding products as well.

Ravi Shanker
Analyst at Morgan Stanley

Very helpful. Thank you.

Operator

The next question is from Jamie Baker with J.P. Morgan. Please go ahead.

Jamie Baker
Analyst at J.P. Morgan Securities

Hey, good morning, everybody. Obviously, lots of discussion about domestic capacity -- sorry, I'm still there, right?

Ryan Green
Executive Vice President & Chief Commercial Officer at Southwest Airlines

Yeah, you're there.

Robert E. Jordan
President & Chief Executive Officer at Southwest Airlines

We can hear you, Jamie.

Jamie Baker
Analyst at J.P. Morgan Securities

Yeah. Sorry about that. It was probably the Themis expletive [Phonetic] that I've ever said. Lots of discussion about domestic capacity cuts, your own and others. Just curious though, in markets where you overlap with lower cost competitors, have you seen any changes in how they're competing other than just the capacity cuts? I mean, there's been speculation of lower OA pricing as some of those airlines try to regain profitability. I'm not seeing any of that, but it's that sort of thing that I'm asking you about.

Robert E. Jordan
President & Chief Executive Officer at Southwest Airlines

Yeah, Jamie. Obviously, there are -- I mean, there are probably as many moving parts right now as I've ever seen. You've got -- as Ryan talked about, you've got a focus on parts of the cabin that are outperforming or route network that are outperforming. You've got a lot of capacity moving around in the industry right now. You've got mergers. So it's tough to tell that. And on top of that, obviously, you've got capacity impacts due to aircraft delivery, the DTF issues, all those things. So I think it's tough to tease out. My guess would be that all of those factors probably get worse across the year. The impact of those are going to continue to increase, especially as you see more impacts on capacity and aircraft due to potential Boeing impacts, obviously, the geared turbofan. So more to follow.

On our end, obviously, we're focused on Southwest Airlines. I'm really pleased with 2023 and all that we got accomplished that we talked about. We ended the year a much better carrier than we were the year before. The area of course where I'm not satisfied is our financial performance. We're running roughly 4 points under our cost of capital right now. And that is our focus here at Southwest. And we've got a really good plan here in '24 [Technical Issue]

Operator

Pardon me, this is the conference operator. We seem to have lost connection with the speakers' location. Please standby while we try to rejoin.

Jamie Baker
Analyst at J.P. Morgan Securities

Okay. Thank you.

Operator

Pardon me, this is the conference operator. We've regained the audio from the speakers' location. Please continue.

Robert E. Jordan
President & Chief Executive Officer at Southwest Airlines

Jamie, my apologies there. I don't know where we left off. But my point is, we are focused on Southwest. We're focused in '24 here on expanding margins, covering our cost of capital that sets us up for a lot of momentum to then make even more progress in '25. And thinking about capacity for Southwest Airlines, our capacity, our capex as we plan forward, will obviously take into consideration the progress we are making against those financial goals. I just want you to know that. The backdrop of the industry I think is going to play out here across 2024 and we'll just have to see.

Jamie Baker
Analyst at J.P. Morgan Securities

Okay, helpful. And then second, you've disclosed in the past that you have seriously considered a second fleet type, but decided not to go down that path. I don't have to tell you that industry animosity towards your sole provider is obviously crescendoing. Would it be unreasonable to assume your single fleet conviction might finally begin to wane from here or is that putting words in your mouth?

Robert E. Jordan
President & Chief Executive Officer at Southwest Airlines

Yeah. Well, let me just back up a sec. Obviously, there's a lot going on with Boeing. I mean, the MAX 8 is a great aircraft. We're very satisfied with it. And like Boeing, we support the work of the FAA and the oversight to improve quality, address any issues because at the end of the day, better Boeing is good for Southwest Airlines.

We periodically look at aircraft manufacturers and aircraft types. That's something we take up routinely here at Southwest Airlines. We've done that in the past. And our focus right now is on our own fleet plan, our fleet plan with Boeing. Obviously, working with Boeing to get the MAX 7 certified. But we do take that up periodically. You also have to understand -- I know you know this, but there isn't -- as such, there's no such thing as being able to derisk all of this. Even if you have multiple aircraft providers, say, we were 50-50. You would have 400 aircraft of one type and 400 of another type. And so an issue still creates great risk for the company.

So the best thing that we can do is work with Boeing to make them an even better company, which is exactly what's happening. We've got great confidence again in the MAX 8 and we're eager to get to MAX 7. We're not in charge of that certification date. But no, we have confidence that Boeing will get all this figured out with the FAA and will come out a better company.

Jamie Baker
Analyst at J.P. Morgan Securities

Appreciate the color. Take care everyone.

Robert E. Jordan
President & Chief Executive Officer at Southwest Airlines

Jamie, thank you.

Operator

The next question is from Catherine O'Brien with Goldman Sachs. Please go ahead.

Catherine O'Brien
Analyst at The Goldman Sachs Group

Hey, good morning, everyone. Thanks so much for the time. Maybe just a couple of quick ones. On unit revenue going forward, underlying your double-digit top-line forecast for the year, can you just help us think about where we go from the 1Q unit revenue forecast? I'm assuming based on the full year capacity outlook, growth is going to slow from the first quarter into the remaining quarters of the year. So that would be a sequential tailwind. You'll be lapping some of that easy comp from the book away as we move through the year. How does that all impact where you think unit revenue trends quarter-to-quarter? Anything else lumpy we should be considering?

Tammy Romo
Executive Vice President & Chief Financial Officer at Southwest Airlines

Yeah. I'll start off, and then Ryan, if you want to jump in with any thoughts you have really there. As you pointed out, there's a bit of noise year-over-year. So probably, the best way to kind of help you think through that is sequentially. As you're aware, the first quarter is seasonally a tougher quarter just in general for the airline industry. And we will have our network changes materially in place in March. And then following on into the summer, we expect to have that fully completed with our summer schedules.

And then just as we continue to go through the year, we would expect our development markets to continue to mature. You're aware, 10% of our system is development market. And by the end of the year, we expect that to be more in line with our historical percentage of about, call it, 5%. And then on top of that, as Ryan covered, we are -- we believe we'll continue to grow our managed business revenue. We've been pleased with our GDS initiative. And we would expect those benefits to steadily improve as we go through the year.

So we would expect -- we've got a lot of momentum coming into this year. We would expect that to continue and [Technical Issue]

Operator

Pardon me, this is the conference operator. We've again lost audio from the speaker location. Please standby as we try to regain it. Thank you. This is the conference operator. We've regained audio from the speaker's location. Please continue. Thank you.

Robert E. Jordan
President & Chief Executive Officer at Southwest Airlines

And everybody, sorry about it. We're having some form of conference call issue here. My apologies. But I would just pile on just simply, maybe talk -- covering what Tammy did, which is you have decelerating capacity across the year. 10% Q1, 8% to 10% in the second quarter, 3% to 5% in the third quarter. And then the back half of the year, really is all just dazzling [Phonetic]. Trips are down, seats are down.

On top of that, the initiatives and particularly the network-related revenue initiatives and the development market-related initiatives accelerate because they really started in March, accelerated to the summer. So you have decreasing capacity across the year and you have an accelerated contribution from the network initiatives across the year. That's an indirect answer to your question, but that's how I'm thinking about it.

Ryan Green
Executive Vice President & Chief Commercial Officer at Southwest Airlines

Yeah. And I wouldn't add anything else other than to say that the revenue initiatives, that component of the plan, those are -- there's very little lumpiness in those as well. Those are pretty evenly spread throughout the year. So it's really about the decelerating capacity in the back half of the year and the network maturation and optimization efforts coming on.

Catherine O'Brien
Analyst at The Goldman Sachs Group

Makes a lot of sense. And then maybe just for my second question, would just like to talk about the unit cost side for this year; and I know very early, but maybe like firstly into '25. Can you talk to us just about some -- like some of the incremental headwinds you're expecting for 2024 versus what you were thinking back earlier in 2023 when you're targeting unit costs to be down year-over-year? Of course, at least a couple of points that lower capacity, the pilot contract came in higher. It would be great if you could just walk us from that, down year-over-year to up 6 to 7.

And then, again, early, but into 2025, if we lap the big step up in wages or back to something more inflationary plus, I'm guessing you're going to get more efficiency back as you go into year two of kind of the network recovery in your optimization phase, like is that when we get the down year-over-year? Any color there would be great. Thanks so much for the time.

Robert E. Jordan
President & Chief Executive Officer at Southwest Airlines

Thank you. And I'll start and then I'm sure Tammy you will pile in. I mean, the -- we were accrued for our labor contract increases here. We've got nine done, two to go. It's really, for the most part, it's rate increases here in 2024. So if you take the pilots, for example, they've got a 4% rate increase. We've got some benefit increases. That's the majority of the 6 to 7. On top of that, you have maintenance pressure that was known. It's really the 800 engines coming off holiday and that's a couple of points. Those are going to be things, wage rate pressure, maintenance pressure that most of the industry shares.

Now on the efficiency side, as we go across the year, we've peaked our hiring and we will -- our target is to end the year in '24 with fewer heads than we ended the year 2023, which will of course naturally make us more efficient with the 7% growth. It's too early to talk about 2025. But as you maybe thinking about a forecast there, yeah, you would naturally decelerate from the unit cost pressure this year. And our goal -- we're not ready to give you a number of course for '25, but our goal will be to dramatically control that headcount growth again in 2025. And we'll be sharing a lot more about that at our Investor Day later in the year.

Tammy, if you want to add anything?

Tammy Romo
Executive Vice President & Chief Financial Officer at Southwest Airlines

You really covered it all. But yeah, the story is actually quite simple is, labor cost, labor rate cost, obviously, the inflation there is more than we would have anticipated initially. So we've -- with the pilot contract behind us, we've adjusted our accruals. So most of 2024 is associated with the step-up in scale increases, wage rate increases and enhanced benefits. And Bob covered the maintenance and we'll share more at Investor Day, but obviously, we're focused on bringing out those efficiencies as we move through 2024 and to a greater degree in 2025.

Catherine O'Brien
Analyst at The Goldman Sachs Group

Thanks so much.

Robert E. Jordan
President & Chief Executive Officer at Southwest Airlines

Thank you.

Operator

The next question is from Duane Pfennigwerth with Evercore ISI. Please go ahead.

Duane Pfennigwerth
Analyst at Evercore Partners

Hey, thanks. Appreciate the time. So maybe just one more shot at this. Can you give us your best guess as to the contributors to the sequential improvement here? How much of that 5 points would you attribute to these network realignment initiatives? And how much would you attribute to just better underlying demand? It's been challenging with airlines to really make a read about the macro based on what airlines are doing in any given quarter. Just like in the third quarter of last year, I didn't think that was a particularly good read on the macro. But if you just look at this revenue outlook here, what is your business telling you about the macro? And are you seeing acceleration? And if so, where?

Ryan Green
Executive Vice President & Chief Commercial Officer at Southwest Airlines

Yeah, Duane, it's Ryan. I think the macro environment for demand overall is very strong. I mean, the way that we closed the fourth quarter, we saw a close-in performance kind of accelerate in the holiday time period, which had us -- we came in above our expectations at that point. So I think that that was a good sign as we got into the year. And as you sit here in the first quarter, the beginning of the first quarter, we've got about 60% of bookings on hand. That's plenty for us to get a good read on how the macro trends are performing.

I think demand looks very strong in January and February, which are typically trough periods here. We're performing just fine. As you look into the stronger periods into March, I think spring break travel and the Easter travel period, that's booking very well. And then probably also, as it relates to the overall macro environment, if you just look at managed business trends, I think I mentioned this earlier, fourth quarter was better than third quarter and first quarter is expected to be better than the fourth. We've got very strong bookings in place on the managed business side here for February as we begin to get into that part of the curve. So I think the overall macro environment sets up well for us having a really good year.

Duane Pfennigwerth
Analyst at Evercore Partners

Just a follow-up there. Any focused cities or parts of the country that are kind of waking back up for you?

Ryan Green
Executive Vice President & Chief Commercial Officer at Southwest Airlines

Well, I would say destination-based markets are doing very well. International is doing very well. Hawaii, we beat our expectations in the fourth quarter. Phoenix, Orlando, Vegas, those markets are doing very well for us. I think when you look -- California was slower to come back, it's doing -- it's improving for sure. So it's definitely pockets across the network. But again, I think overall, things continue to improve.

Duane Pfennigwerth
Analyst at Evercore Partners

Okay. Thank you.

Operator

The next question is from Brandon Oglenski with Barclays. Please go ahead.

Brandon Oglenski
Analyst at Barclays Capital

Hey, good afternoon, and thanks for taking my question. So can I come back I think to the first Q&A here, which was about the premiumization of the industry, because I think what we did observe through 2023 was some growing yield differential between yourself and maybe some low cost competitors relative to the network airlines. And I guess, I just want to ask the question maybe more bluntly or directly, does products matter and does it matter as you go further in distance and longer in flight length? And I guess, I'd specifically ask about your experience in Hawaii as well. And I guess, how do these initiatives that you guys are talking about on the commercial side start to try to address that? Thank you.

Ryan Green
Executive Vice President & Chief Commercial Officer at Southwest Airlines

Well, first of all, I would say, absolutely product matters. And I think that certainly from a coach product, Southwest Airlines has the best coach product in the industry. I would just echo what I said on the premium component of this is highly cyclical. And I think that we want -- before we would take up that question, you would want to or we would want to study that very closely as we think about that.

Your question on how do we do relative in a long-haul market like Hawaii. As I mentioned, we beat expectations. We beat our own expectations for Hawaii in the fourth quarter. I think our yields continue to improve and the Mainland to Hawaii component of that franchise. And we'll continue to develop those yields further. But no, I think that our product fares very well even in long-haul markets. But yeah, on the whole, I think product matters. And I think when you look at the industry together, I think that there's at least some evidence out there today that demand for fares on the bottom end and lower products on the lower end of the segment, there may not be as much demand for those types of products today as what their once was.

Robert E. Jordan
President & Chief Executive Officer at Southwest Airlines

And Brandon, this is Bob. The only thing I would add is -- and this is no prediction, don't read more into this than is there. You've got to meet your customers' demand and their expectations. So as those change over time, you want to understand that. You want to be -- you want to carefully understand that. And we have a history of demonstrating that. So you go back 10 years, we wouldn't have been talking about WiFi. We would not have been talking about power on the aircraft. And you can go on and on and on. There was a time when we didn't even have a loyalty program here at Southwest Airlines.

So as consumer demands and expectations change, and you've got different generations of flyers coming into the system as well, we will constantly look at that, understand what our customers want and then if that warrants change, we will look at that and we will make the right decision. Again, we have a history of doing that with our product here and our customer experience. That's no predictor regarding premium in the cabin. I'm just trying to make sure that you know that we aren't stubborn in this area, that as you see demands change, we'll understand that and we will react if needed.

Brandon Oglenski
Analyst at Barclays Capital

Bob and Ryan, I appreciate that. And then maybe if I can just get a quick follow-up in for Tammy. Any ability to tell us where you view your weighted cost of capital today?

Tammy Romo
Executive Vice President & Chief Financial Officer at Southwest Airlines

Yeah, sure. It's sitting probably -- it's the high-8s, close to between 8% and 9%. So we view it as about 8.6%, 8.7%.

Brandon Oglenski
Analyst at Barclays Capital

Okay. I appreciate that, Tammy. Thank you.

Tammy Romo
Executive Vice President & Chief Financial Officer at Southwest Airlines

But one thing, Brandon, just to add on, over our longer term, it's been closer to 9%. We certainly take a view, a longer term view when we're planning in terms of our returns on invested capital.

Brandon Oglenski
Analyst at Barclays Capital

Thank you.

Operator

The next question is from Helane Becker with TD Cowen. Please go ahead.

Helane Becker
Analyst at Cowen Securities

Thanks very much, operator. Hi, everybody. Thank you for the time. As I look at your numbers for the fourth quarter, your revenues were up about 12.5% or something and your costs were up 10.5% and yet you weren't able to see significant margin improvement because of the things you already talked about where you have inflationary pressure. But as we look forward to the next one year, how should we think about the seasonality of your business now? Because it seems like you said everything was great for the fourth quarter and yet you didn't perform significantly better than you did last year. And I would have thought that last year, given all the issues, you would have performed a lot better. So maybe you can help me bridge beyond just the obvious labor cost inflation and other inflationary pressures. How you get back to those margins you used to report? And then do you expect -- and then my other question is, do you expect any book away from the flight attendant asking for a strike vote?

Robert E. Jordan
President & Chief Executive Officer at Southwest Airlines

Yeah. Helane, thank you. Maybe I can start and then Tammy can jump in.

Helane Becker
Analyst at Cowen Securities

There's a lot of questions.

Robert E. Jordan
President & Chief Executive Officer at Southwest Airlines

Yeah, I'll try to remember everything. I think just generally, I think the biggest impact sort of tearing everything aside in the fourth quarter is we did choose to restore capacity quickly. So basically that was a choice to number one, get our aircraft back to normal utilization, fly all our aircraft, our pilots, all that. And so our capacity, our ramp up was greater than normal, and therefore, we did have -- you could see it, we had a drop in load factor. I think that's the biggest contributor in terms of the performance rate there that's different than normal. And our '24 plan obviously is to get back to normal in that area as we normalize capacity.

So to me, that's the biggest thing. And I don't attribute any of that. I'll get to your flight attendant question. We don't -- I don't attribute any of that to book away in the holidays, for example, related to Elliot or something like that. I think it really was the rate of capacity restoration. As we look at our consumer, our customer behaviors, we look at our customer metrics, demand for Southwest Airlines, there's no indicator or indication that we saw any hangover or book away. In fact, the holiday periods were the strongest periods of the quarter.

Your question about the flight attendant -- and I'm really proud of our labor folks. We ratified nine agreements in just over a year. We have two to go, one of those with TW 556 are flight attendants. We were at federal mediation. And in federal mediation, you follow the mediator and the mediator determines your dates and when you meet and we're eager to get a contract done. And just like our pilots who are in mediation, I'm confident we can do that.

The SAV or the strike vote does not mean you are headed to a strike. There are many, many, many things that have to occur before we get to that point. So I'm not worried about a strike despite the strike authorization vote. When we saw our pilots take an SAV or strike authorization vote, we did not see any -- very little customer -- even indicator that the customers were focused on it or aware. So I don't expect any kind of hangover from that here in terms of customer demand because of the flight attendant vote.

Ryan, do you want to add anything there?

Ryan Green
Executive Vice President & Chief Commercial Officer at Southwest Airlines

No. There's no evidence in anything that we track from a customer sentiment perspective that would make us concerned about that.

Robert E. Jordan
President & Chief Executive Officer at Southwest Airlines

That sentiment is fully recovered to at this point. And our NPS scores, our customer satisfaction have recently have been records and certainly back to pre-pandemic levels.

Helane Becker
Analyst at Cowen Securities

Okay. That's really helpful. Thank you.

Robert E. Jordan
President & Chief Executive Officer at Southwest Airlines

Thank you.

Operator

We have time for one more question. We'll take that last question from Dan McKenzie with Seaport Global. Please go ahead.

Daniel McKenzie
Analyst at Seaport Global Securities

Hey, thanks for squeezing me in. I guess, on efficiency and further improvement to come in 2025, for investors that want or that would like line of sight on where FTEs per aircraft could ultimately go, what prior year could serve as a good benchmark? I guess, that's first. And then secondly, is that reasonable to assume Southwest could get there fully in 2025?

Robert E. Jordan
President & Chief Executive Officer at Southwest Airlines

Yeah, I'll answer directly and add Andrew, if you want to chime in. I think we're not ready to talk about that in maybe as much detail as you want until we get to our Investor Day here later this year. But absolutely, it's just like the goal of covering our cost of capital this year and getting back to our historic returns and ROIC well above WACC. Restoring efficiency is right alongside in terms of the key goal or a key goal.

We ramped up our hiring quickly to be able to restore the network and get all of our aircraft flying. That hiring peaked in October to November and we have been decelerating that rapidly here in the last 60 days. The plan is to again to grow 6% or so this year and then to end this year with the same or fewer heads than we began the year, which will obviously help our efficiency quite a bit.

Not ready to discuss '25, but we would have certainly a directionally similar goal in 2025. We also have a significant number hate to be -- hate to tease here. We have a significant number of efficiency initiatives that we are planning around both efficiency of the aircraft, efficiency of our people and processes as we think about things like the turn, and we'll be sharing a lot more about that again in our Investor Day later this year.

Andrew Watterson
Chief Operating Officer at Southwest Airlines

I'd say, Bob, one element to add on that is the same kind of cross-functional groups we use to kind of rapidly accelerate our hiring, that same team is now responsible for driving up these efficiencies. So that is something that is literally every week kind of needing to get to achieve what you just said about where the headcount split at the end of the year.

And I'd also say that while we're conscious of the FTE per aircraft, we're actually managing to more of a lever or squib CASM because if you think about aircraft, I could fly that different ways. We could say, you'd have two flights a day and my ground obviously needs a different if I flew it six times a day. And then the block hours for the aircraft would change pilot pay, if it was a longer block hours per aircraft or less for the less.

So the ultimate CASM you get out of your aircraft depends on how you're flying it and how you're deploying staff against it. So the FTE per aircraft is a useful measure one can have. But it's, A, hard to compare across the airlines because of the outsourcing, but B, dependent on how you fly the aircraft, it give us some -- a little bit of false signal, but you can really look at what we're going to try to do for the labor CASM and get that to a good order.

Daniel McKenzie
Analyst at Seaport Global Securities

Yeah, pretty good. And if I could just squeeze one last one in here. It's a question on the shift to the cloud. How much of Southwest has shifted to the cloud at this point? And once you complete that endeavor, what could the savings ultimately look like once that transition is completed? Is it tens of millions, hundreds of millions and is that an opportunity?

Robert E. Jordan
President & Chief Executive Officer at Southwest Airlines

I'd tell you what, you're stretching my technical abilities here, but I believe like a lot of companies we have a path to shift to the cloud. But again, it's to shift the appropriate things to the cloud. It's not as simple as it might sound. I think we have shifted something on the order of just below 50% is what I've got in my head and we have a goal to shift a lot more.

Some of that is cost savings, absolutely. And -- but I think that is more modest. A lot of what you gain is reliability. And the ability to fail over systems and obviously support operations, support our systems, which is critical here in an airline. You have systems that can't be down 30 minutes before they cause you an operational problem. So a lot of the shift to the cloud is as much a resiliency effort and a modernization of the code base and all that effort as it is a cost savings. Certainly, you'll see cost savings. And -- but I just don't -- my guess is it's more in the tens of millions than it is hundreds of millions.

Andrew Watterson
Chief Operating Officer at Southwest Airlines

I think, Bob, we -- I mean, our data center the fraction side it used to be, we made good progress. But when we talk about internally, we're not talking so much of the cost where you can take a hosted bigger system, break-up the micro services that are in the cloud and allows you to then get productivity and how you refresh and improve that application over time. So it's really the speed to market for these new products and support the products is really what drives the benefit. So it's elsewhere in the business, you get the benefit not so much any kind of hosted costs, if you will.

Robert E. Jordan
President & Chief Executive Officer at Southwest Airlines

The other piece of that too, and then we'll stop is the -- there is a -- it's not a tech cost, but there is a very high cost, both revenue and expense and being down and having an issue. And you saw issues earlier this year or last year, like the NOTAM outage that really hurt the industry. And so to the extent that you can reduce issues, reduce the number of the issues, the length of time of an issue or reduce them completely, my guess is that is more powerful in terms of cost reduction than even the technology reduction because reducing IROPs is very powerful.

Daniel McKenzie
Analyst at Seaport Global Securities

Very good. Thanks so much for the time guys.

Robert E. Jordan
President & Chief Executive Officer at Southwest Airlines

Dan, thank you.

Julia Landrum
Vice President of Investor Relations at Southwest Airlines

Okay. That completes the analyst portion of our call. A quick reminder that the transcript and a replay of the call will be available on our Investor Relations website. I appreciate everyone joining, and have a great day.

Operator

Ladies and gentlemen, we will now begin with our media portion of today's call. I'd like to first introduce Ms. Whitney Eichinger, Chief Communications Officer.

Whitney Eichinger
Senior Vice President & Chief Communications Officer at Southwest Airlines

Thanks, Gary. I'd like to welcome members of the media to our call today. Before we begin taking questions, Gary, could you please give instructions on how everyone should queue up for a question?

Operator

[Operator Instructions] Our first question comes from Alison Sider with The Wall Street Journal. Please go ahead.

Alison Sider
Analyst at Wall Street Journal

Hi. Thanks so much. I just wanted to see what you made of a center of Duckworth today calling on the FAA to deny the waiver Boeing of Sox to MAX 7? Is that anti-ice issue? Do you think that's something Boeing should have to address before they can start delivering those planes?

Robert E. Jordan
President & Chief Executive Officer at Southwest Airlines

I'll start, Andrew will pile in, Ali. Obviously, the certification of the MAX 7 and the issue there, that's really Boeing. I don't want to speak for Boeing or get ahead here. Obviously, we want the MAX 7 and we want it on the best timing possible. So I don't want to talk for Boeing, but it is one more thing to consider here in the certification process and certification timeline.

Andrew Watterson
Chief Operating Officer at Southwest Airlines

I would say that the certification is a technical process between the FAA and Boeing. And I think they've been doing a good job. It's been slower than we would like, but it's been technically based and it's off for a public comment. So it's an opportunity for people to comment on that after technical analysis to be done. And so we're not a party to that. We want the aircraft. It's a question of when we'll get it, not if we'll get it. So we're pleased that they're taking their time to make sure it's safe and we support whatever way the FAA wants to go.

Alison Sider
Analyst at Wall Street Journal

And I mean, do you have any plans to increase your own oversight of Southwest planes on the Boeing production line?

Andrew Watterson
Chief Operating Officer at Southwest Airlines

We have already done that. So in late 2022, we changed our posture up there. Previously, we had for a long time, we have representatives at the factory. We increased it to a team of AMP license mechanics, whose job is to provide oversight of our aircraft in the production process. The Boeing provides customer quality people that are on their payroll, but our direction.

And so they inspect at places where we ask in the factory the few days that Boeing takes to assemble an aircraft from the wings being built to rolling out. It's about roughly 80 areas where we have our requirements for things to be expected. Those people inspect, our people inspect. And then several times a year, our quality assurance team goes up and inspect our inspectors to make sure everything is going well. So that provides a really good oversight in the production process.

Once it leaves the factory, there's a customary acceptance in spectrums that happened the FAA overseas and give a final certificate of air worthiness. And then it comes on to our ops spec and we -- in our maintenance program, which is quite robust. And since we're by far the largest operator of the 737, we have provided lots of data and our continuing analysis and safety surveillance system allows for us to really understand the aircraft and make sure that it's performing and conforming as expected.

Alison Sider
Analyst at Wall Street Journal

Thanks.

Operator

The next question is from Leslie Josephs with CNBC. Please go ahead.

Leslie Josephs
Analyst at CNBC

Hi. I was wondering if you have any thoughts about how a Chapter 7 of an airline in the United States would affect the industry? Are there jobs for those employees should that happen? And then do you think that the Justice Department would ever let you buy another airline?

Robert E. Jordan
President & Chief Executive Officer at Southwest Airlines

Hey, Leslie, it's Bob. We don't -- obviously, like I said earlier, there is a lot going on in the industry. They're between merger -- potential mergers and acquisitions and issues with aircraft deliveries, the geared turbofan, I don't know. In my 36 years in the industry, I've seen more moving parts as you have right now. One thing that's consistent here is we stick to our business. So we're focused on Southwest Airlines, improving Southwest Airlines, being the best carrier that we can be, improving our returns and profit margins, all the things that we've talked about. It's impossible to speculate on what might happen. Our history would say that as opportunities arise for Southwest, if they make sense, we take a look at that. But I wouldn't want to speculate on anything going on in the industry, certainly around any other carrier.

Andrew Watterson
Chief Operating Officer at Southwest Airlines

I think with the benefit for Southwest Airlines, Bob, is that we have a plan and we control our own destiny. We hit our plan, we get our returns we need to be, we don't need something to break our way to judge or anything else or rule anything. Our plan delivers our results.

Operator

Our next question comes from Rajat Singh with Reuters. Please go ahead.

Rajat Singh
Analyst at Reuters

Hi. Andrew, do you have any update on the timeline for the certification of MAX 7? Earlier it was expected by April. So do you see any risk of the certification process getting slowed down due to the current events with Boeing?

Andrew Watterson
Chief Operating Officer at Southwest Airlines

Well, we get weekly updates on the status of the certification process, so we know what's been submitted and what hasn't. But obviously then the FAA is the one who oversees that and inspects it and makes the ultimate decision. Previously, we've indicated that we had in our internal plan an assumption that it would be certified by April and that we would then spend time after that to get on our ops spec and that could take us to end of the year, and therefore we wouldn't be flying until next year. But that is -- that was only the latest assumption. We've had earlier assumptions all along this process. And as Tammy mentioned, we will modify our plan based on the new information. So should that change, we will move our assumptions and adapt our plan. So by taking this kind of conservative approach and giving ourselves a lead time, we won't let any kind of short-term ups or downs affect what we have planned for this year.

Rajat Singh
Analyst at Reuters

And Bob, I have a question for you. Do you have confidence in Boeing's current leadership to address issues facing the company?

Robert E. Jordan
President & Chief Executive Officer at Southwest Airlines

Hey, Rajat, Boeing has been a partner with us for 52 years. And I have absolute confidence that between the FAA oversight work that's going on, the work that Boeing is doing, that Boeing will -- working with the FAA, will address the quality issues and will obviously come out of this a better company. I've talked personally to their leadership. They're committed to doing anything and everything it takes to be better and to address the problems. As I said before, a better Boeing is very good for Southwest Airlines. So, yes, I have absolute confidence that they will work their way through this and address the issues.

Rajat Singh
Analyst at Reuters

Thank you.

Robert E. Jordan
President & Chief Executive Officer at Southwest Airlines

Thank you.

Operator

This concludes our question and answer session. I would like to turn the conference back over to Ms. Eichinger for any closing remarks.

Whitney Eichinger
Senior Vice President & Chief Communications Officer at Southwest Airlines

Thanks, Gary. The news release and our contact information are available at swamedia.com. We thank everyone for joining.

Operator

[Operator Closing Remarks]

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