Is There an Airline Stock with Upside Potential? (AMR, DAL, UAL, LUV, LCC, JBLU, ALK, HA, SAVE)

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The recent bankruptcy filing by AMR Corp. (NYSE: AMR), parent of American Airlines, has put a damper on any enthusiasm there might have been among investors for US airlines stocks. A report yesterday from the International Air Transport Association (IATA) added to the negativity, noting that total profits could be halved in 2012.

With American Airlines on the sidelines, we’ve looked at the stocks of several other US carriers in a search for some hidden value: Delta Air Lines Inc. (NYSE: DAL), United Continental Holdings Inc. (NYSE: UAL), Southwest Airlines Co. (NYSE: LUV), US Airways Group Inc. (NYSE: LCC), JetBlue Airways Corp. (NYSE: LCC), Alaska Air Group Inc. (NYSE: ALK), Hawaiian Holdings Inc. (NASDAQ: HA), and Spirit Airlines Inc. (NASDAQ: SAVE).

Delta Air Lines has a median target price of $18.00 and is trading at $8.39 around noon today. The implied gain here is about 115%. Delta’s share price is about -1.5% lower than it was on October 21st, so the implied gain is growing because the share price is falling. The target price is unchanged since October.

US Airways has a median target price of $10.00 and is trading today at $5.36, about -7.6% lower than the share price in late October. The implied gain is about 86.6%, and the target price is unchanged since October.

United Airlines has a median target price of $32.50 and is trading today at $19.94, yielding a potential upside of nearly 63%. The stock’s target price rose by $0.50 in the past six weeks, but the share price has fallen by about -1.4% in the same period.

Every one of the nine stocks we looked at has an implied gain of greater than 20%, proving once again that numbers often don’t tell the whole story. The only stock with a chance of offering investors some value is Alaska Air. But the chance is a very slim one.

Alaska Air’s median target price was raised from $80.00 to $83.00, and the share price has increased by about 5% since late October. It’s the only one of these nine to perform that combined feat. The stock’s potential upside is 22% and its forward P/E is 7.39. The company does not pay a dividend.

Alaska has ordered 15 new 737s from Boeing Co. (NYSE: BA) and deliveries are scheduled to begin in 2012. Thirteen of the new planes will be 737-900ERs, which carry a list price of $89.6 million each. That’s a total of about $1.2 billion, which is roughly equal to both the company’s long-term debt and to its available cash.

The company does not indicate how it will finance the purchase of these planes, but a recent report in the Financial Times indicates that European banks, the main lenders to global airlines, have cut back lending for commercial aircraft purchases. That means the airlines will have to issue debt or perhaps resort to leasing new planes.

The impact on aircraft makers like Boeing is likely to be greater than the impact on airlines, but what’s reasonably certain is that the cost of capital for aircraft is going to rise. For that reason, if for no other, investing in any airline stock now is a speculative play rather than a value play.

Paul Ausick