Alaska Airlines Is Downgraded Because of Delta's Seattle Incursion - TheStreet

NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- A leading airline analyst downgraded shares of Alaska Airlines (ALK) - Get Report , one more marker in the continuing debate over whether Alaska can withstand the Delta (DAL) - Get Report onslaught in Seattle.

In a report issued Thursday, JPMorgan analyst Jamie Baker downgraded Alaska to underweight from neutral, writing, "We see little reason to accumulate Alaska shares at current levels."

"We expect Alaska revenue per available seat mile and margin momentum will handily underperform the industry next year," Baker said. He has a target price of $51.

Alaska shares were trading down 2.2% to $51.75 in trading early Thursday. Year to date, shares are up 42%, while Delta shares have risen up 45%.

Southwest (LUV) - Get Report leads the airline industry with an 83% year-to-date gain; the smallest gain at a major airline is 35% at JetBlue (JBLU) - Get Report . The S&P 500 has risen 7% this year. Falling fuel prices, capacity discipline and strong demand have fueled the airline share price gains.

Baker's view is not universal. CRT Capital analyst Mike Derchin rates Alaska a buy -- he raised his target price to $61 on Monday after raising his fourth-quarter earnings estimate to 87 cents a share. Analysts surveyed by Thomson Reuters also estimate 87 cents.

"Offsetting PRASM pressures from competitive battles are a number of tailwinds that include its strong position with frequent fliers in its region, unrelenting cost controls, substantial free cash flow generation, aggressive share buybacks and lower jet fuel prices," Derchin wrote.

Alaska beat estimates in the third quarter, reporting earnings of $1.47 a share, vs. consensus of $1.42.

For the quarter, Stifel analyst Joseph DeNardi wrote that among all the carriers "Alaska's results were most impressive, in our view, as strong execution and effective management have been able to offset competitive pressures thus far, though this will become more challenging over the next few quarters."

In a report issued Friday, Keay wrote that Delta could be "rethinking its Seattle strategy," given recent announcements that Seattle-Haneda and Seattle-Amsterdam will be seasonal routes.

"We still predict Delta fails there (in Seattle)," Keay wrote, although he noted that "Delta is sure to grow much more before it shrinks a bit, and Delta is likely to stay there. We just think people underestimate Alaska's resolve.

"Alaska is a company that does things the right way," Keay wrote. "So when results are good it's even easier to get behind the story. They are the good guys."

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

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At the time of publication, the author held no positions in any of the stocks mentioned. This article is commentary by an independent contributor, separate from TheStreet's regular news coverage.