The Deal: JetBlue's Prospects Take Off

NEW YORK ( TheStreet) -- JetBlue Airways ( JBLU) is a popular choice among investors hoping to capitalize on regulators playing hardball with merger partners AMR Corp. and US Airways ( JBLU). There's logic to that strategy, but the wager is still a long shot to pay off.

The Department of Justice stunned markets Aug. 13 by filing a lawsuit seeking to block the proposed $11 billion union of US Airways and the parent of American Airlines Inc. In the days since, some strategists have floated discounters including JetBlue as possible beneficiaries from the regulatory spat, noting that Justice's decision to block AT&T ( T) from acquiring T-Mobile USA ( TMUS) set off a wave of second-tier consolidation in the telecom business.

The case for JetBlue is particularly appealing, as the New York-based airline could benefit regardless of whether the US Airways-AMR deal is ultimately approved.

Should the DOJ and the airlines eventually settle, as many expect, JetBlue would be at the front of the line to buy coveted land rights at overcrowded Reagan National Airport in Washington that US Airways would likely be forced to divest.

And if the deal is blocked, JetBlue could be an attractive consolation prize for American that would help the Fort Worth, Texas-based airline expand its East Coast presence.

JetBlue and American already have a codeshare alliance in place that American relies on to round out its offerings at New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport.

But JetBlue bulls beware. While increased access to Reagan would certainly be a positive, analysts say that adding a few flights in an ultracompetitive market would hardly move the needle for JetBlue. And while the airline would appear to be the most attractive takeout target should American turn to plan B, there is little reason to believe American would move quickly to do another deal.

American, should it fail to merge with US Airways, would have its hands full reformulating a standalone plan to exit Chapter 11 protection and dealing with disgruntled labor groups who had encouraged a US Air deal. And with a solid partnership with JetBlue already in place the company likely would be in no rush to buy the discounter and risk further irritating regulators.

In the meantime, JetBlue shares, which closed at $6.26 in Tuesday trading, are not cheap. As Raymond James Financial analyst James D. Parker notes, JetBlue's market valuation, at about 11 times 2014 earnings estimate, is in line with its three-year average. And the airline's standalone fundamentals are nothing to brag about, plagued by higher-cost small Embraer 190 jets and focused on highly competitive markets.

"The primary issue at JetBlue is that any unit revenue premium does not appear to be enough to offset rising costs, which may be inherent in its premium coach-class product, concentration at JFK, and high seat-mile-cost E-190s in a very price competitive business," Parker wrote.

Investors betting on a takeover could be in for a long, turbulent ride.

-- Written by Lou Whiteman in New York

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