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Before we go further into this great new decade -- notice we didn't say this great new millennium, as we haven't yet hit that point -- we have some unfinished business in terms of 1999. Yes, it's time to review the airlines' stock performance for last year. And believe it or not, even during the sector's relatively dark and dreary fourth quarter, there were patches of sunlight.

As a matter of fact, many of our major airlines flew right in the face of the usual

Airline Profit-Hunting Season guidelines by posting larger gains in one or both of the last two quarters of the year, rather than flying high in the first two quarters.

So, let's take a look at the majors, on a quarter-by-quarter basis:

The major airlines are listed in the order in which they finished the official 1999 Airline Performance Derby. As you can see,

Continental Airlines

(CAL) - Get Caleres Inc. Report

takes home the bottle of cyber


champagne, with a 32% return for the year. The folks in Illinois were not that far behind however, as


(UAL) - Get United Airlines Holdings Inc. Report

, parent of

United Airlines

, posted a nice 30% gain for the year. We offer the folks in Elk Grove a cyberbottle of

Veuve Clicquot

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for this excellent second-place finish.

No surprises on the bottom side. For most of the year, it was a neck-and-neck battle between two airlines to see which would post the worst overall percentage loss for the year. At the sound of the bell on New Year's Eve,



had posted a 42% loss for the year, while

US Airways

(U) - Get Unity Software Inc. Report

posted a 39% loss to take next-to-last honors.

We're sending a box of cyber-rocks to the folks at both TWA and US Airways, and our condolences to shareholders of both airlines.

Why the chart today? Since this week is the official kickoff of the Airline Profit Hunting Season, I thought it would be interesting to see just how many of the major airlines had, in fact, posted their largest gains in the first two quarters of 1999, the traditional high-profit period. (We have a reason for doing this, which we'll reveal in a bit.)

How many airlines do you see that fit the pattern?

Well, let's start from the bottom.

TWA posted its only percentage gain for the year in the first quarter. The airline sank like a rock the last two quarters and lost a marginal 5% in the second. I guess this means TWA did the dance.

US Airways did not. It lost ground the first and second quarters, fell off the cliff in the third and was up 22% in the fourth. Bzzzt.

Alaska Air

(ALK) - Get Alaska Air Group Inc. Report

was up 7.5% the first quarter, but then was down the remaining three. We give Alaska a half-point.

Northwest Airlines


gets the nod. The airline was up both the first and second quarters -- and down the last two. Just like a trained seal.

Delta Air Lines

(DAL) - Get Delta Air Lines Inc. Report

comes next, having posted, in our estimation, a disappointing 5% loss for the year, placing it smack in the middle of the bunch. Delta had a superb first quarter last year. But that was about it. The rest of the year the stock underperformed. Delta gets a half-point.

Next comes

Southwest Airlines

(LUV) - Get Southwest Airlines Company Report

. Southwest did the dance. The stock was up for both the first and second quarters, down one and up one for the balance.


(AMR) - Get Alpha Metallurgical Resources Inc. Report

, parent of

American Airlines

, is next. The company did not do the dance.

America West


didn't do the dance either. While it was up in the first quarter, it was up more in the fourth quarter, so no half-point here.

United? Well, this one is tough. Yes, UAL had a great first quarter, but had a terrible second, a flat third and a rebound in the fourth. We say it didn't dance well because if you owned the stock for the second half alone, your return would have been barely better than a first-half-only play.

And finally, we have Continental. The airline did not do the dance. Far from it, as the airline posted a whopping 36% return in the fourth quarter.

So, how well did the majors follow the unofficial rules of Airline Profit Hunting Season last year?

Inconclusive. Split about evenly as to which airlines did and which did not.

Which brings us to our point.

Times have changed. Realities such as shorter-term trading, more effective revenue management by airlines, the availability of more financial information about the companies, more scrutiny of airline financial operations and more awareness of the impact of events on earnings have changed things. Perhaps the old rule-of-thumb institutional buying cycle should not be relied upon so heavily.

Granted, it's still a nice place to start. But we had all kinds of mini-plays last year that would have been good for investors, but had nothing whatsoever to do with this buying pattern. We'll talk about some of those in our next column and revisit how last year's picks did in 1999.

Holly Hegeman, based in Barrington, R.I., pilots the Wing Tips column for 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 While she cannot provide investment advice or recommendations, she welcomes your feedback at