NEW YORK ( TheStreet) -- Delta (DAL) - Get Delta Air Lines, Inc. Report, seeking to lead the U.S. airline industry in every conceivable way, announced first-quarter earnings a week ago, eight days before the remaining carriers will start to follow on Wednesday.
That fueled an inevitable question. "We will be interested to see if American (AAL) - Get American Airlines Group, Inc. Report and United (UAL) - Get United Airlines Holdings, Inc. Report follow Delta in reducing international (capacity) -- something they did in 2014 on the Atlantic," wrote Stifel analyst Joseph DeNardi, in a recent report.
Four carriers including United and Southwest (LUV) - Get Southwest Airlines Co. Report will report earnings Thursday; American will report Friday. Three more carriers will report next week, with JetBlue (JBLU) - Get JetBlue Airways Corporation Report leading things off on April 28.
American has already cut back a bit on its planned international growth. The carrier said in its January 8-K filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission that overall capacity would rise 2% to 3% from 2014 levels, while international capacity would rise about 1.5%. But in its April 8-K, the carrier said overall capacity would rise just 2% while international capacity would rise roughly 1%.
Delta shares rose 2% on April 15, the day the carrier reported earnings and announced a 3% fourth-quarter international cutback. In general, shares have been rising ever since.
For the moment, the basic premises of airline investing are that the big three carriers are being hurt by the strong dollar; strong domestic demand continues to support shares, particularly shares in domestically focused carriers, and oil prices are on the way back up.
Year to date, shares in American are down 4%, United shares are down 5%, and Delta shares are down 6%. The S&P 500 is up 2%, Southwest shares are up 2% and JetBlue shares lead the industry with a 25% gain.
Deutsche Bank analyst Mike Linenberg has high expectations for first-quarter airline earnings, particularly United's.
Linenberg projected first-quarter pretax profit of $3.5 billion for the industry, five times the $700 million it made a year ago. "While our forecast calls for a modest 2% increase in top-line, 109% of the earnings gain is driven by lower fuel prices," he wrote. "Our net income forecast of $2.8 billion represents a record for the quarter and marks only the third profitable March Q for the industry in a decade."
Linenberg estimated a week ago that United will earn $1.45 a share for the first quarter. The Thomson Reuters consensus estimate now stands at $1.44, apparently after some upward revisions. Linenberg also recently raised his estimates for Allegiant (ALGT) - Get Allegiant Travel Company Report, JetBlue and Southwest "as revenues are coming in better than projected for all three."
"While fuel-driven savings are expected to continue to produce record results this year, we remain concerned about weaker international revenue trends, and are therefore, maintaining our preference for domestic-focused carriers," he added.
Credit Suisse analyst Julie Yates said investors "appear braced" for weak guidance on current quarter revenue per available seat mile.
"Buy side expectations for Q3 PRASM seem appropriately low consider greater year over year currency exchange pressures in Q2, additional seasonal capacity, increasing fuel surcharges headwind in Asia based on the lag and tough domestic comps," Yates wrote in a recent report.
Yates said investors want to hear about cuts to capacity guidance, indications that third-quarter PRASM declines will be less than second-quarter declines, solid pricing projections and news of more buybacks. She recently raised estimates for United, JetBlue, Southwest and American.
"We would tactically buy pullbacks around earnings with a preference for Southwest and Spirit (SAVE) - Get Spirit Airlines, Inc. Report among domestic carriers and United and Delta among legacy carriers," she wrote.
This article is commentary by an independent contributor. At the time of publication, the author held no positions in the stocks mentioned.