Can Airline Stocks Fly?

Northwest Airlines Corporation (NYSE/NWA) emerged from Chapter 11 protection on Thursday. In fact, the airline sector as a whole is now a lot leaner and better equipped.

 Since bottoming out in September 2005, the airline sector has been showing some optimism, but the trend has been largely sideways this year. The AMEX Airline Index (AMEX/XAL) is trading around the midpoint of its 52-week high/low. There is strong resistance at the $55 level. A strong upside break at $55 could see a move toward the $60 level, last encountered in December 2004. But don’t count on it for the time being, as the airline industry will remain dead money in the immediate future.

 The renewed strength in oil prices to the mid-$60-per-barrel range is a major factor that continues to hurt airline stocks. We are seeing a pickup in travel, although there are competitive pricing pressures impacting margins.

 The reality is airlines as an investment at this time are still not that viable. The risk is too high. The industry fundamentals are precarious. There are better areas to invest your capital. I prefer airline makers and parts companies like Boeing Company (NYSE/BA) and BE Aerospace Incorporated (NASDAQ/BEAV) as a play on the aviation turnaround. But should the situation calm down, I do favor the discount airlines.

 At the top of my list is still the granddaddy of all discounters; the one every player wants to emulate: Dallas-based Southwest Airlines Company (NYSE/LUV).

 In spite of the carnage in the airline industry, Southwest has been reporting some decent numbers over the past few years. Its ability to turn a profit year after year is impressive. Southwest has been profitable for the last 32 consecutive years.

 Its low-cost structure and experience at running a discount carrier for over 20 years gives the company an advantage over other low- fare carriers and the major airlines.

 Other discounters to keep an eye on include Frontier Airlines Holdings Incorporated (NASDAQ/FRNT) and JetBlue Airways Corporation (NASDAQ/JBLU).