As airlines flirt with profitability, analysts say it's time for investors to climb aboard

The US airlines reported yet another round of quarterly losses. It could very well be their last, as vaccine rates climb and planes fill with leisure travelers eager to go on vacation once again.

But airline stocks are all still down, and many analysts say this is a buying opportunity for investors.

Delta Air Lines announced Wednesday that it was profitable in June and expects to be solidly profitable for the rest of this year. United expects to be profitable starting this month, and is moving ahead with expansion plans with its biggest jet order in its history. Other airlines are also signaling that a return to profitability is near. All the airlines are looking to hire staff as they ramp up capacity once again.

With a few exceptions, the overwhelming majority of airline stock recommendations are bullish. Of the 140 recommendations on the nation’s eight largest airline stocks by airline analysts, more than half were “buy” or “strong buy” recommendations. Only 18 times did an analyst urge investors to sell. The 12-month target prices for the stock are on average better than 30% above today’s stock values.

The recommendations are even more bullish if you exclude the two stocks that raise the most concern among analysts, American and Hawaiian airlines.

American, the nation’s largest carrier, also has the highest debt load, and as a result, the lowest credit rating. Analysts’ median target price for its shares is slightly below today’s level, and 10 of 21 analysts have sell recommendations, compared with only three buys.

But even American’s debt level isn’t a major concern to Philip Baggaley, the chief credit analyst for airlines for Standard & Poor’s.

“Yes, American is most heavily indebted. It may take them longer to pair back their debt load,” he said. “All are talking about repairing their balance sheet. But remember they not only have more debt, they have more cash on hand.”

Hawaiian Airlines depends on travel to and from the one state that still has Covid-inspired restrictions on some travelers. Its 10 analysts are mostly neutral on its outlook with three sell recommendations balanced by two buys.

But for other airlines, there’s almost nothing but love from Wall Street analysts. Of the 21 analysts who follow the major carriers, Southwest has 17 buy recommendations and no sells. Delta is 13 and 0, United 9 and 3. And the next tier of carriers also has analysts on board, with 14 of 15 analysts who follow Alaska Air recommending its shares.

This doesn’t mean the problems for the industry are over yet.

Delta reported that despite its return to profitability in June, revenue for the quarter was about half of where it was the same period of 2019, ahead of the pandemic.

While Delta said leisure travel is back and actually up from pre-pandemic levels, the most lucrative part of the airlines business is higher-paying business travelers, and for the major carriers, their international business. Both are still a fraction of pre-pandemic levels.

Delta reported that domestic business travel in June was about 40% of where it stood two years earlier. While that’s double the 20% level where it stood in March, it’s nowhere near recovered. With limitations on cross boarder travel, especially Europeans coming to the United States, the international business is even worse off.

Still, Delta executives were optimistic that after Labor Day it will start to see significant recovery there. CEO Ed Bastian said with so many offices still closed, there’s no way for business travelers to visit with customers or suppliers, so there’s little reason for business travel. But he expects that will start to change significantly later this fall.

“In our most recent corporate survey, with almost 95% of our accounts indicating they’ll be returning to their offices by the end of this year,” he told investors Wednesday.

He also said the survey of business customers showed that “93% of our customers said they’re going to increase travel in Q3 over Q2, and many of those by meaningful amounts. So I think the surge is coming. And just as we’ve seen it on the consumer side, we’re getting ready for it on the business side,” he said.

There had been some estimates that it could be until 2024 or even later for business travel to return to a pre-pandemic level, that businesses which learned to use Zoom meetings during the pandemic would never return to travel budgets of years past. Bastian said he expects business travel to be almost all the way back by 2023, if not sooner. He said its survey showed only 5% of business customers don’t expect to ever resume the same amount of travel, and that’s down from 8% who said that in an earlier survey.

One of the airlines’ bigger problems right now could be fuel prices — typically the second-largest expense after labor. Delta paid $2.16 a gallon for jet fuel in the quarter, up about 50% from where it stood at the end of last year. But Baggaley said even that is little more than a headwind.

“It’s not a big enough worry to derail the basic trend of improving profits, but it certainly can slow the rate of improvement,” he said.

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