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Warren Buffett once called airline stocks a "death trap." As an industry notorious for losses and bankruptcy, investors tended to avoid long-term holdings in these stocks.
To be sure, airlines have faced challenges. With the need for expensive aircraft and a large labor force, fixed costs remain high. Moreover, the legacy of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks still linger. The industry has to function amid an inconvenient but critical need for security. Another force that has defined the industry is the demand for lower fares. These falling fares pushed one-time icons such as Pan Am out of business. Even the legacy carriers that survive today all faced at least one bankruptcy.
However, times have changed, and so have attitudes. Even Mr. Buffett now holds some airline stocks in his Berkshire Hathaway (NYSE: BRK.A , NYSE: BRK.B ) portfolio. Today, these industrial stocks often see double-digit profit growth coupled with single-digit forward price-to-earnings (P/E) ratios. Moreover, the industry continues to innovate, particularly from a marketing standpoint. Whether that innovation comes in the form of an emerging ultra-low fare category or bringing expanded air service into smaller markets, this remains a dynamic industry.
Given current conditions, these four airline stocks seem best-suited to take off in the months and years to come:
Unless one lives on the west coast, Alaska (NYSE: ALK ) may not come to mind as one of the more common airlines. However, it has expanded far beyond its traditional hubs in Anchorage and Seattle-Tacoma. Today, it serves not only remote locations in Alaska, but major cities across the continental U.S. Today, it is also an airline of choice for travel to Mexico, Hawaii or Costa Rica.
The acquisition of Virgin America in 2016 contributed much to this footprint and boosted its revenue. The stock suffered for a time as Alaska worked to absorb Virgin. Today, it trades more than 30% below its 2017 highs. However, ALK now looks poised for a turnaround. ALK stock is seeing improvement in a key airline metric - revenue per available seat mile (RASM). RASM declined in the first quarter; however, by the fourth quarter, it had risen by 5.4%.
Despite that improvement, where ALK will likely stand out most is in profit growth. Wall Street forecasts place estimated profits for ALK stock at 2019 at $6.72 per share. If it holds, it will represent a 50.7% increase from the $4.46 per share it earned in 2018. Most credit the synergies of the Virgin America takeover for this increase. These synergies should continue to drive ALK stock higher in the months and years to come.
Source: amanda kelso via Flickr (Modified)
U.S. investors will likely not think of Chile-based Latam (NYSE: LTM ) when looking at airline stocks. However, it serves Latin America's most robust economy and has quietly increased its footprint within South America and beyond. It is the largest airline in Chile and Peru and has grown to be the second-largest in Argentina, Colombia and Ecuador. Latam has also moved to become a true world airline. It began service to Australia in 2017. It also serves countries such as the U.S., Spain and Germany.
LTM stock trades at 21.6 times forward earnings. However, only in the airline stocks category would investors consider that expensive. At 92.9% projected earnings growth, it should grow faster than any of its U.S. counterparts. They expect that growth rate to average about 40% per year over the next five years.
Fortunately for investors, LTM stock may be in a recovery mode. It peaked at just over $17 per share in January 2018. By August, it had lost about half of its value. Since then, it has begun to recover. It currently trades at around $11.50 per share.
LTM stock may not offer as much value as its American peers. However, with its rate of profit growth and potential for further expansion, this has become one of the airline stocks that deserves more attention.
Source: Jerry Landers via Flickr (Modified)
Perhaps no airline has done more to redefine the domestic airline industry than Southwest (NYSE: LUV ). It began as a low-fare option for point-to-point flights to major Texas destinations. In so doing, it proved that a company could earn a profit with improved efficiency and a focus on service.
As Southwest moved into new cities, fares fell and passenger volumes increased. This became so prevalent that observers called this the "Southwest Effect." This continues to appear today as Southwest begins plans to serve Hawaii .
Already the largest domestic U.S. airline, Southwest also eyes plans to expand to Canada, Europe and South America. The airline currently serves 99 destinations with just 14 outside of the U.S. Hence, despite its 48-year history, growth prospects remain bright for LUV stock.
Wall Street still forecasts a 47th consecutive profitable year. With its 10.4 forward P/E, it compares well to other airline stocks. That also appears cheap when considering its predicted profit growth of 23.3% for this year. Wall Street also predicts a longer-term average annual growth rate of about 17.5%. With LUV stock staying on a growth path, and with numerous new destinations that the airline can serve, LUV should remain one of the more popular airline stocks.
Spirit (NYSE: SAVE ) may make its mark among airline stocks by "out Southwesting" Southwest. Southwest built much of its reputation on low fares. Spirit has tapped into a market further by becoming king of the so-called "ultra-low-fare" market. The airlines have profited by serving passengers willing to give up any frill it legally can to achieve the lowest fares.
SAVE wants to go further than Southwest in another manner. Like Southwest, it relies on one type of aircraft. However, Spirit has explored the option of adding a second, regional aircraft. This would allow Spirit to go into smaller markets dominated by legacy carriers. This could make Spirit the biggest instigator of the so-called Southwest Effect. Further, with Spirit's continued push into South America, growth prospects remain bright.
In 2018, a pilot shortage forced a one-time increase in Spirit's costs. However, that is about all that has slowed down the growth driving SAVE stock. Wall Street predicts a growth rate of 48% for 2019. It also expects average annual growth of about 23.8% per year in future years. Investors can purchase this growth at just 9.7 times forward earnings.
At a market cap of just $4.3 billion, it pales in comparison to Southwest's $32.4 billion size. However, with massive profit growth and a forward-thinking expansion plan, SAVE stock should grow as Spirit captures more of its fare-sensitive market.
As of this writing, Will Healy did not hold a position in any of the aforementioned stocks. You canfollow Will on Twitterat @HealyWriting.
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