With only 4 1/2 weeks left in the quarter, we realized we have been quite remiss lately. We've been talking about US Airways' (U) assault on Washington Dulles International Airport, and UAL (UAL) - Get Report unit United's courtly dance with America West (AWA) , and Delta's (DAL) - Get Report acquisition of ASA Holdings (ASAI) , owner of Atlantic Southeast.
But somehow, somewhere, in the midst of all this merger mania, we forgot what brought us to the
dance in the first place.
Airline stocks. And how to make money buying and selling them.
Today it's back to basics. We're answering the question that, judging from our email, is on many people's minds lately: What major airline stock do we like right now?
Last spring we named Delta to replace
as our favorite major airline stock (as defined by the
Department of Transportation
, that's one of the 10 largest domestic U.S. carriers). Since then we've written favorably on Delta more than once, and it is still our favorite major airline stock today. The stock is up some 23% over the last 10 trading days, and we like it longer-term as well.
Faithful readers know we place a lot of importance on management. We start at the top and work down. Air lines have notoriously suffered from poor management: flimflam men running thinly disguised investment schemes, members of the good-old-boy club, insiders from before deregulation who wouldn't know a well-run airline if they tripped over it.
When we see evidence of outside-the-box thinking, we pay close attention. We can't forget that last year Delta was accused of having "rocks in box" thinking by David Bonderman when talks about a possible merger with
went south ... er ... north.
But that was before Delta CEO Leo Mullin, in a move that I think was nothing short of brilliant, went outside the industry to recruit financial chief Warren Jenson from
. Yes, a real CFO.
We traveled to Atlanta last month to join a panel speaking to Delta's networking management group. Network management deals with route analysis, scheduling and planning activity.
In addition to answering questions from employees, we talked at lunch to those in network management about what they are doing and where they see themselves positioned.
Their responses merely reinforced what we had perceived last year in watching Delta's improving operational numbers and in listening to Jenson set out clearly defined goals during conference calls -- only to meet or exceed those goals. The company has now done this four quarters in a row.
Without exception, the individuals we spoke to were excited about the change at the company. This was not just lip service. This was candid discussion. "Old management would not have known how to connect to the Internet, much less write an email," one senior manager said.
I previewed the airline's new gate and reservations software, which is scheduled for rollout in Atlanta in May. To say this software is an improvement would be a vast understatement.
This change should add to Delta's bottom line in addition to making its passenger and ticketing operations more efficient. For instance, management told me that in many cases the current system simply doesn't process passengers with e-tickets. "Sometimes we really don't know how many people are on an aircraft when the door shuts," one person told me.
The software product is just one part of the airline's scheduled $500 million investment in information-technology systems. The next system headed for an upgrade? The antiquated -- as one employee put it, "prehistoric" -- revenue management system the airline uses.
Delta has contracted with
to use one of its standard products as a first step. Plans are already in place for a proprietary product that will take the basic Sabre product and improve upon it substantially. And remember, in our estimation, this airline last quarter posted the best earnings and (more importantly) operational statistics of any major airline, with the exception of
, which we consider to be in a niche of its own.
Delta's yields suffered less than did American's, United's or US Airways'. It posted better revenue and cost per available seat mile data. And this was before it acquired Delta Connection partner Atlantic Southeast, and before its massive investment in IT systems has even begun to take effect.
Get my point? We still like Delta. The biggest problem we have is its lack of a solid alliance affiliation. But hey, in terms of working on issues that will directly improve the bottom line, the company gets five tips of the wing.
Holly Hegeman, based in Dallas, pilots the Wing Tips and Traveling With Wings columns for TheStreet.com. At the time of publication, Hegeman owned stock in Southwest Airlines, though positions 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.