You might have noticed that after a rather moribund start this week, the airline sector enjoyed a nice, healthy bounce on Wednesday. Thursday morning, the day after the much-awaited
spinoff, many of the majors are up again.
And this just a week after a slew of carriers posted new 52-week lows. Does that mean it's finally airline
profit-hunting season, after lo these many months?
We canceled the traditional start of the hunt in a
column in January when it became pretty obvious that earnings and fundamentals for airline stocks were unimportant to investors.
Two big elephants lounging in the airlines' gate areas seemed to be getting all the attention back then. One was lack of interest in the sector as a group, and the other was the fear of rising fuel prices. Readers may recall
this column's description of how the airlines were hit hard and quickly by rising fuel prices, with the damage first showing up in the fourth quarter of 1999.
We are now coming up to the end of the first quarter, and suddenly the munchkins seem to be singing, "Ding Dong, Fears Over Fuel Are Dead." Fuel prices haven't gone down, but the notion seems to be that airline stocks have been sufficiently pummeled to reflect the fuel issue.
Suddenly, strong trading
returned to the sector Wednesday, and three major airlines posted double-digit gains on the day.
The first was
. Shares of Alaska were up 16% Wednesday to close at 30 1/16. Shares of
were right behind, posting a 15% gain on the day, to close at 23 3/4. And, last time we looked, shares of both airlines were up again in early trading Thursday.
Those two moves are especially odd.
On the surface, it might appear that both stocks have been beaten down and oversold, making it natural for money to flock to them first.
But a closer look shows that the outlook for both of these airlines in the short term is not nearly as rosy as it is for other carriers.
Alaska Airlines had cost issues last quarter, and I suspect it will have some serious cost issues again this quarter.
US Airways is facing a possible strike by flight attendants on March 25, and the airline has already said that it will shut down rather than be a victim of the union's tactics.
Wednesday, the airline also gave investors some bad news. US Airways said
should be off 6.5 points in March, 5.5 points in April and 3 points in May.
While the airline blamed those hefty drops on the flight attendant negotiations and "booking away," we beg to differ.
No doubt there is booking away going on now as passengers shy away in anticipation of a possible strike, but US Airways has been experiencing hefty drops in terms of loads -- not to mention
revenue per available seat mile
-- for months. This is
all labor-related. Operationally, the numbers we hear from our sources at US Airways for January and February are not good. And labor is not the reason.
also posted a double-digit gain Wednesday, picking up 12% to close at 52 1/4. In the case of UAL, at least there was a positive reason for this move. While shares of UAL have also taken a beating over fuel costs, and costs associated with the unwinding of the airline's employee stock ownership plan, the short-term outlook for United is fairly good in our opinion -- especially compared with the other two. In addition, Sam Buttrick, analyst with
, upped his rating Wednesday on UAL from attractive to buy. Those upgrades never hurt.
So, based on Wednesday, is it safe to start buying airline stocks again?
We are not quite convinced. But we did get our natty, bright orange Official Wing Tips hunting jacket out of the closet this morning.
We figure we'll send it to the cleaners today just in case we might need it in the near future.
Holly Hegeman, based in Barrington, Rhode Island, pilots the Wing Tips column for TheStreet.com. At time of publication, Hegeman held no positions in any securities mentioned in this column, although holdings can change at any time. Under no circumstances does the information in this column represent a recommendation to buy or sell stocks. You can usually find Hegeman, publisher of PlaneBusiness Banter, buzzing around her airline industry Web site at
www.planebusiness.com. While she cannot provide investment advice or recommendations, she welcomes your feedback at