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Stocks  | October 15, 2019

Airline stocks have been suffering over the past few years as bankruptcies, fluctuations in the price of oil and more recently, trade disputes and labor demands, have weighed on the sector. However, in the case of airline stocks it appears that history isn’t an indicator of the future, as the segment looks poised for a rebound. 

Earlier this year the Boeing (NYSE:BA) 737 Max jet was grounded for safety reasons and although BA is working to get the plane back in the sky, there’s no way to predict how long that will take.

On top of that, the latest World Trade Organization ruling gives President Donald Trump’s administration clearance to impose a tariff on European goods that would make the price of Airbus (OTCMKTS:EADSY) aircraft 10% more expensive. That tariff is seen coming into effect Oct. 18 and consequently has weighed on the industry. Worries about rising costs are certainly founded, but the market’s knee-jerk reaction could be a great buying opportunity for value investors.

Here’s a look at the top four U.S. carriers and their ability to weather this storm.

Airline Stocks: Delta Air Lines (DAL)

At the end of December, Delta Air Lines (NYSE:DAL) stock fell off a cliff on the tariff news. Delta stock is down 12% from its September highs despite what appeared to be a relatively solid third-quarter earnings report. Delta’s sales were up 6.5% and the firm’s margins expanded in the third quarter. Management said revenue is seen rising by more than 5% in Q4. Worries bout the sector overall kept investors focused on the fact that the earnings per share forecast was below expectations. And DAL stock suffered.

It’s true that Delta’s costs are going up. Aside from the impact of Trump’s tariffs, Delta is also dealing with pay increases and rising maintenance costs that will hurt the Q4 results. DAL stock is also likely to be one of the hardest hit by the Airbus tariff — the firm had 254 outstanding orders with Airbus at the end of August.

However there’s still a chance that the tariffs will be renegotiated, or at least delayed, in the days to come. Dr. Tenpao Lee, an economics professor at Niagara University said in an email interview that tariffs ultimately worsen conditions for both sides. He believes the trade tension with Europe is fundamentally different from what’s happening with China. This is in part because Europe is an ally, which could make it easier for the two sides to come to an agreement.

That outcome would be positive for DAL stock and may help facilitate a Q4 upside surprise. Plus, Delta is arguably one of the most financially sound on this list. And the firm’s 3.1% dividend yield makes waiting out some short-term pain much more palatable.

American Airlines (AAL)

American Airlines (NASDAQ:AAL) has the second largest number of outstanding Airbus orders on the books with 114 awaiting delivery as of Aug. 31. On top of that, the firm was hit hard by the grounding of the Boeing 737 Max — around 150 flights per day were canceled as a result. That means AAL stock could make big moves if Boeing can get the plane cleared before the end of the year. So far, no concrete dates have been released by safety regulators, but it appears that most airlines are counting on the Max to return to flight by early 2020.

AAL has been beaten down over the past year. American Airlines stock is down more than 50% from its 2018 highs. That in itself has become somewhat of an argument to buy. JC O’Hara from MKM Partners told CNBC that American’s chart is so bad, it might actually be good. 

That’s the same sentiment that InvestorPlace’s Tim Biggam had earlier in October. He noted that AAL stock is one of the cheapest in the industry right now. The firm is due to report its earnings on Oct. 24, after the Airbus tariffs come into effect. The report should provide some insight into how the firm will deal with the rising cost of its unfulfilled orders. 

Southwest Airlines (LUV)

Southwest Airlines (NYSE:LUV) stock has been one of the best performers in the airline sector despite being impacted by the Boeing Max groundings. Southwest stock has been a top pick in the sector in part because it has remained relatively insulated from oil price swings. The company has an active fuel hedging program which protects Southwest from dramatic price changes and even earned LUV $3.2 billion between 2002 and 2008.

Southwest flies exclusively Boeing aircraft, so it won’t struggle if the tariffs are imposed as planned. In fact, LUV might actually benefit from the tariffs as the company has been forced to ground its 34 Max planes and hold off on the dozens more that have yet to be delivered. This has put competitors with fewer Max planes at an advantage. Southwest has planned its schedule through January without the Max planes. Any movement toward getting them in the sky would also be a boon for LUV stock.

United Airlines (UAL)

United Airlines (NASDAQ:UAL) stock has just 45 unfulfilled Airbus orders on the books. The company operates a mixed fleet. Both tariffs and the grounded Max planes have hurt the company. The firm is due to report solid earnings on Oct.16. But investors are likely to remain cautious with all of the uncertainty surrounding the industry. 

So far, UAL has recouped most of the losses it suffered when Trump’s Airbus tariffs were announced. That means although the stock is still weighed down by the Max groundings and overall uncertainty about airline stocks, it may not get the same bump that some of its other peers will if the U.S. and the European Union come to an agreement in the coming week. 

Over the past year UAL has been growing its capacity and unit revenues consistently. And those trends appear set to continue. Bernstein analyst David Vernon believes UAL stock can make its way to $107 once sentiment improves. In his view, the market has been “too negative” about the 737 issues. Vernon sees the firm making substantial gains as the dust settles. 

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