American Airlines Is Lifting Off as the Industry Makes a Comeback

After this tumultuous year, it might be worth remembering that though America has been through crises and suffered setbacks, those who got rich stayed focused, figured out which companies had the strongest prospects and stuck with them long term.

The airline business has always been more volatile than most, as the profits depend on hard-to-predict factors such as customer demand for travel, fuel prices and negotiations with labor unions. But with the economy still refusing to slip into recession, the prospects for the industry are looking up.

The International Air Transport Association recently said that it expects the global airline industry to make a net profit next year of $29.8 billion, and the forecast for total revenue of $736 billion, represents a 4.1% net profit margin.

Alexandre de Juniac, the IATA's chief executive and director general, said that the past few years have produced some of the most impressive profit performances in the industry's history, even amid the uncertainty.

But he also said that "controlling costs is still a constant battle in our hyper-competitive industry."

The group's look back at 2016 found that "many years of hard work in restructuring and re-engineering the business, the industry is also more resilient."

Profits are not evenly spread around the world, however. The strongest performers are those in North America.

So which of the major U.S. carriers is best positioned to capitalize on this trend?

Delta Air Lines and United Continental Holdings are both solid companies that have delivered strong results in the past. But American Airlines (AAL) seems to be out front.

American Airlines is projecting an increase in its "unit revenue," which measures sales in relation to an airline's overall flight capacity. It is a key measurement of how efficiently an airline is doing.

The carrier said that it expects total unit revenue for the fourth quarter to range from a 1% dip to a 1% gain, an improvement from an earlier forecast of a 0.5% to 2.5% drop.

The improvement would make American Airlines the first U.S. carrier to push the key metric into positive territory after two years of expansion, fare cuts and a stronger dollar dragged it lower. Delta Air LInes had sought to be the first but recently pulled back expectations on when that might happen.

American Airlines is also improving its yields, a measure of an airline's ability to charge travelers more for flights.

Other good news for the industry includes the decision by Warren E. Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway to invest in airlines. Some industry executives are hoping that President-elect Donald Trump's Federal Aviation Administration will pare back some regulations that they think make it more costly to do business.

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Thomas Scarlett is an independent contributor who at the time of publication owned none of the stocks mentioned.

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