) -- Warren Buffett of
isn't ready to invest in airlines, even after a wave of consolidation that's led to jockeying between
Delta Air Lines
and the proposed merger of
for the title as the top carrier in the U.S.
In fact, after most major airlines in the U.S. spent some part of the first century of aviation negotiating bankruptcy courts, Buffett predicts another 100 years of investment pain.
"Investors have poured their money into airlines and airline manufacturers for 100 years with terrible results," Buffett said at Berkshire Hathaway's annual shareholder meeting.
"It's been a death trap for investors," Buffett added, of airlines when asked by Bill Miller of
whether consolidation has changed Berkshire's outlook on the industry. Specifically, Miller asked Buffett whether Berkshire-owned
would consider buying an airline, amid a seeming revival in the industry's financial condition.
"No," Buffett responded.
In 2012, Berkshire Hathaway ordered nearly $10 billion worth of planes from
to update its NetJets fleet, a deal that followed multi-billion dollar orders from the likes of
in recent years.
Buffett, the proud owner of insurer
, took a stance on airlines similar to that of Gordon Gekko in the 1987 classic
"Men as smart as myself have got their asses handed to them on a sling with the airlines, fuel could go up, unions are killers...," said Gekko, played in the film by Michael Douglas.
Gekko's comments in
came before a bankruptcy wave in the early 2000s that included the dissolution of
Trans World Airlines
, then a large investment of activist Carl Icahn, in addition to filings by US Airways, United Airlines,
and, most recently, American Airlines.
While consolidation has revived airline stocks over the past 12 months amid expectations of newfound pricing power, Buffett ultimately made a Gekko-esque refrain when pressed on his outlook for the industry.
"The airline industry has this specific issue where they have very low incremental
profit per seat and high fixed costs," Buffett said at Berkshire's shareholder meeting. In the 1990s, Buffett did poorly on a preferred share investment in US Airways, then called USAir.
At the May 4 meeting, Buffett compared the consolidated airline industry to that of government-sponsored mortgage agencies
heading into the financial crisis.
"They were enormous companies who had a huge advantage over everyone else," Buffett said of Fannie and Freddie, however, it didn't keep them from making poor economic decisions such as lowering credit standards to chase mortgage market share during the housing boom.
Buffett said airlines remain a "sexy" business that perpetually attracts new entrants to undercut price and profit margins. The 'Oracle of Omaha' added he's turned down many pitches related to the airline industry.
Berkshire vice chairman Charlie Munger noted airlines aren't moated from competition, in contrast to the recently consolidated railroad industry, which Berkshire is a large investor in by way of a $26 billion acquisition of
, the firm's largest-ever deal.
"You couldn't create another railroad and you can create another airline," Munger said.
Still, railroads outperformed the broader
S&P 500 Index
for about a decade, amid consolidation, before Berkshire Hathaway made its 2009 deal for BNSF. Buffett and Munger both said they could, similarly, be missing early signs of a turn in the airline industry.
Munger said Bill Miller of Legg Mason could very well be correct in anticipating a new era for the industry. Miller, a prominent value investor, runs the
Legg Mason Capital Management Opportunity
, the top performing mid-cap value fund in the first quarter of 2013 after a 20%-plus rise, according to
According to Morningstar data, United Continental, Delta Air Lines and US Airways are among the Legg Mason Opportunity fund's top 10 holdings.
Berkshire may have the airline industry on its radar after boosting spending on NetJets in recent years, however, a major acquisition or new investment is unlikely at this point.
"It goes into my too hard pile," Munger said of airline investments.
-- Written by Antoine Gara.