3 Airline Stocks to Buy That Can Beat Earnings Expectations

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If any industry benefits from falling oil prices it is the airlines. In fact, jet fuel accounted for almost 35% of one major airline’s spending last year. With prices dropping after years of high costs, many airlines can translate that drop right into profit. With an ugly start to the fourth quarter hammering stocks, an analyst at Cowen thinks two major airlines can beat earnings, and a third is a spectacular long-term story at current levels.

In a new research report, Cowen’s Helene Becker makes the case that fourth-quarter guidance will be crucial, and she is very bullish on three top stocks to buy that are all rated Outperform at the firm.

Southwest Airlines Co. (NYSE: LUV) has gone from industry underdog to an industry leader, and it is another stock that screens favorably at Cowen. With the domestic market showing good strength, and the pricing environment looking very solid for the rest of the year, revenues should stay solid. The end of the restrictive Wright amendment allows the carrier to now fly non-stop to countless destination previously restricted. Cowen raises the per-share earnings estimates above consensus for both, at $0.56 for the quarter and $1.90 for 2014. Cowen feels the company will beat estimates and give solid fourth-quarter guidance.

Southwest shareholders are paid a small 0.8% dividend. The Cowen price target for the stock is $39. The Thomson/First Call consensus target is $37.43. Shares closed trading on Monday at $28.88.

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United Continental Holdings Inc. (NYSE: UAL) has been a show-me story for many investors as the merger with Continental has not been smooth, and customers have experienced numerous computer glitches that have snarled traffic over the past two years. The company recently reported outstanding September traffic and had a very positive investor update. The Cowen team sees the company as growth leader among the network carriers, as well as another stock that can beat current earnings estimates.

The Cowen price target is $52, but the consensus is even higher at $56.97. United closed down over 5% on Monday at $40.55.

JetBlue Airways Corp. (NASDAQ: JBLU) may be a touch richer valuation-wise than the other top stocks to buy, but it also may have big upside. The company has a very high short interest percentage at almost 21% of the free float. JetBlue is also adding high-dollar premium seating to long-haul flights, including New York to Los Angeles and San Francisco routes. Importantly, the stock trades at a low 0.6 price-to-earnings growth number, implying good corporate growth ahead. The Cowen team sees the stock as an outstanding longer term story, and they raise their estimates for third-quarter earnings

Many analysts see a new CEO on the horizon, and the company has instituted luggage fees. Cowen continues to believe JetBlue will announce operational changes at its November 19 Investor Day, which should have positive ramifications for revenue and earnings.

The Cowen price target is a huge $15, much higher than the consensus $13.50. JetBlue closed Monday at $9.41. Trading to the Cowen target would be a monster 53% gain for investors.

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Cowen pounds the table on the fact that jet fuel prices are plummeting and nobody cares. With those costs coming directly off the airlines’ books, earnings can go much higher, and so can the stock prices.