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Why Wall Street Loves Alaska Airlines

Analysts seem to like everything about the carrier, even its plan to grow at a relatively rapid pace of 8% to 9% during the current year. "While most investors are justifiably wary of airlines growing, Alaska's 2010 performance puts it in rarefied air," raved Stifel Nicolaus analyst Hunter Keay, in a recent report.

"Last year Alaska had the best year in the history of the company -- generating 10.7% ROIC on a weighted average cost of capital of 8% (the airline's calculations), and Alaska's 13% operating margin should be the best among U.S. majors," Keay wrote. "Alaska has consistently outgrown the industry over the past three years yet also consistently delivered superior returns. If this type of performance does not justify modest growth, we don't know what does."

Standard & Poor's analyst Jim Corridore has a buy on Alaska and just raised his 12-month target price to $80 from $75. "Alaska remains the best hedged U.S. airline, in our opinion, a good position to be in, given recently rising oil prices," he wrote.

Soleil Securities analyst Jim Higgins wrote that "Alaska remains our favorite relatively low-risk stock in the (airline) group" and increased his target price to $74 a share. "As far as we can see Alaska's earnings momentum is good and its free cash flow generation and balance sheet remain strong," he said.

Because it has recently been so successful, Alaska has evaded Wall Street's current concern about capacity growth. Recently, it added new routes from San Jose, Calif,. and Sacramento, Calif., to Guadalajara, Mexico, routes that lost service when restructuring Mexicana gave them up.

Whether these new routes represent opportunity or over-expansion is obviously something the airline will evaluate going forward, but it is always wise to remember that Wall Street can turn on a dime.

-- Written by Ted Reed in Charlotte, N.C.

>To contact the writer of this article, click here: Ted Reed
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