Airline stocks face more challenges than most during the novel coronavirus pandemic, and that’s keeping CEOs awake at night.
These days, the idea of traveling shoulder-to-shoulder in a metal tube (with no social distancing), isn’t the most appealing notion in the world.
Business travel has also taken a big hit, as companies have widely turned to video meeting platforms where possible, rather than shunting employees from coast-to-coast for an old-fashioned sit-down in a conference room.
But all is not lost. Airline traffic is starting to pick up, although it could be months or years before it returns to pre-pandemic levels.
Secondly, airline stocks are massively depressed right now. That’s bad news if you held those names before the pandemic, but it’s a great opportunity for investors looking to stake a new position in a weakened industry.
Here are the 4 most interesting airline stocks to watch now:
- United Airlines (NASDAQ:UAL)
- Delta Air Lines (NYSE:DAL)
- Lufthansa (OTCMKTS:DLAKY)
- Ryanair (NASDAQ:RYAAY)
Airline stocks aren’t for the faint of heart and are likely to experience lots of volatility in the months ahead. But if you’re willing to set aside some money and invest in the long term, these names could be an interesting opportunity.
Airline Stocks to Watch: United Airlines (UAL)
For United Airlines, the writing’s already on the wall. In fact, you could say it’s on official letterhead.
United told its 36,000 employees in a series of meetings that continuing losses from the novel coronavirus pandemic may result in mass furloughs. Such a move could happen as early as Oct. 1, when staffing restrictions imposed on the company via CARES Act loans expire.
The company is giving notice to 45% of United’s personnel in the U.S., including 15,000 flight attendants, 2,250 pilots and 11,000 service workers.
Just two days before that announcement, United disclosed that the airline’s drop in business will continue well into the third quarter.
Year-over-year capacity in June was down 88% and is projected to fall by 75% in July and 65% in August. The numbers are showing slow but steady improvement, though that’s not going to be enough to save thousands of UAL jobs.
So what’s the silver lining here? UAL says it has $17 billion in liquidity, which should be ample buffer for the company to withstand a downturn that will likely stretch into 2021. Cutting payroll will help United cut costs and ideally, allow investors to see some profits.
Delta Air Lines (DAL)
Admittedly, I’m a longtime DAL stock bull and I’ve thought for a while that Delta was the best pick among the big airlines after the Covid-19 pandemic struck.
Back in April I wrote that Delta, at a 60% discount, was retrenching for a long recovery, and thus an outstanding pick for investors with a long-term time horizon.
So how are we looking now?
Delta’s been on a roller-coaster ride over the past 10 weeks and the stock price is essentially unchanged since late April. Year-to-date, Delta remains down 54%, so there’s a great chance for massive returns over the next year or so.
But what makes Delta better than United, Southwest (NYSE:LUV) or American (NYSE:AAL)?
First, I like that Delta is taking steps to remake its fleet, including getting older jets out of service. The company already announced plans to retire its MD-88 jets, and older 757 and 767 jets are also on their way out. CEO Ed Bastian has said any jet scheduled to retire over the next five years will be moved out sooner, rather than later in response to the pandemic.
InvestorPlace’s Bret Kenwell crunched the numbers and says Delta is expecting $25.2 billion in growth in 2021, which would be a 65% increase from 2020 expectations.
Earnings per share are projected at $2.91 in 2021. If you can buy Delta cheaply enough now, you’ll see a solid return next year and into 2022.
The coronavirus has dramatically accelerated in the U.S., and that’s going to depress domestic airlines until coronavirus hospitalizations and deaths begin to slow. Right now, American case numbers are trending in the exact opposite direction.
But it’s a different story in Europe. Many countries have done a much better job than the U.S. of flattening the curve and are now being rewarded by the reopening of their national borders to travelers.
Lufthansa, the German-based airline, trades on over-the-counter markets. DLAKY stock has been battered like its U.S. counterparts, down roughly 46% year-to-date.
The stock got a boost when its shareholders agreed to a 9 billion euro government bailout. Terms of the agreement allow the German government to take a 20% stake in the airline, which will dilute shareholdings.
The company also reached a deal with the Ufo union that represents the airline’s cabin crews, granting employees early retirement to reduce their headcount. Additional negotiations with unions that represent pilots and ground crews are ongoing.
European air travel will rebound faster than in the U.S. so investing in DLAKY stock may be one of the best ways to see profits any time soon.
Ryanair Holdings (RYAAY)
Ryanair is another bet on European travel. Unlike Lufthansa, Ryanair trades as part of the Nasdaq composite even though it is based in Ireland with bases in the Dublin and London airports.
Its stock performance has been much better than U.S.-based airlines as well, with RYAAY stock down only 25% year-to-date. Since hitting its trough in mid-March, Ryanair has seen a resurgence, gaining more than 30%.
In July, the U.K. agreed to allow travel to 75 destinations, including Turkey, Australia and Bermuda. U.K. flyers are obviously eager to travel, with Ryanair’s jets already flying at 67% capacity. CEO Michael O’Leary talked about the numbers:
“We expected it to be weaker, but it’s quite clear that British families going on holidays have decided, one, either the quarantine will be removed before they come home, or two, they will fill in the form and then just go about their normal lives.”
For July, Ryanair forecast that it will have more than 4.5 million more passengers on a month-over-month basis.
Patrick Sanders is a freelance writer and editor in Maryland, and from 2015 to 2019 was head of the investment advice section at U.S. News & World Report. Follow him on Twitter at @1patricksanders. As of this writing, he was long DAL stock.