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Airline stocks could take off despite spike in COVID-19

The usual holiday travel rush is turning into a rout for U.S. airlines as the coronavirus pandemic forces them to cut about 60% of the available seats they would usually sell.

“The rapid spread of COVID-19, along with government and business-imposed restrictions on air travel, continue to have an unprecedented and debilitating impact on U.S. airlines,” said Airlines For America (A4A) President and CEO Nicholas Calio.

According to A4A, domestic passenger volume is down 62% and international passenger volume is down 72%. The airline industry continues to burn $180 million per day with net booked revenue down 79%.

Increased bookings prior to Thanksgiving had indicated pandemic weary Americans were eager to start traveling again. But United Airlines (UAL) in an SEC filing this week said, “there has been a deceleration in system bookings and an uptick in cancellations as a result of the recent spike in COVID-19 cases.”

United expects total revenue to be down by approximately 67% in the fourth quarter of 2020 as compared to the fourth quarter of 2019.

Calio said recent spikes in COVID-19 threaten the airlines which “are still experiencing a dramatic decline in demand and have been forced to remove flights from their schedule and make historic capacity cuts.”

It’s a similar story at Southwest Airlines (LUV) which in its recent SEC filing said, “The Company expected the election to impact trends, it is unclear whether the softness in booking trends is also a direct result of the recent rise in COVID-19 cases.”

Southwest points out that the improving revenue picture prior to the election has decelerated as it heads into the holiday travel season although Southwest says, “December 2020 revenue trends are currently estimated to improve compared with November 2020.”

Airline stocks prepare for take off

Despite the short term negative outlook, Helane Becker, a managing director and analyst at Cowen, told clients, in a note this week, “Optimism and sentiment towards the airlines is improving with recent initial vaccine trial data from Pfizer (PFE) and Moderna (MRNA).”

Becker points out net bookings have yet to reflect the vaccine-related optimism, “but there is a growing expectation of pent-up demand.”

Raymond James analyst Savanthi Syth in a note this week to her clients wrote, it’s getting darker before the dawn. “While we may be on a sinking ship with spikes in COVID cases, Pfizer’s news...means that the lifeboats are here or soon will be and with results increasing hopes that others will soon be here too. “

Syth adds, “Based on our conversations with select U.S. airlines, including Southwest’s update on Thursday, it appears positive momentum in bookings and revenue seen in October has stalled (but not reversed) in the first couple of weeks in November.”

Detail of a flying airplane, the close up view
Detail of a flying airplane, the close up view

Different airline CEOs have projected a return to what they call normal sometime in 2023. Syth and her team assessed the upside for airline stocks based on a return to year-end 2019 performance.

They point out “balance sheets have been significantly transformed, for the worse” and different airlines will manage their new debt loads better than others. “The greatest upside would be in stocks that have underperformed on an enterprise value basis,” Syth said.

With that in mind, Syth measures the upside for Delta (DAL) at 15%, United and Southwest at 12% and American (AAL) at 5%. “However, this doesn’t take into account earnings recovery timing that will ultimately vary by region and product segment,” Syth cautioned.

At Cowen, Becker and her team are following airline stock trends too. “We've tracked bi-weekly short interest data across the group throughout the pandemic and have seen a steady downward trend (positive) since June with only a few hiccups.”

It may sound promising for investors, but A4A’s Calio points out the airlines still need help from the federal government to survive the pandemic. “Airlines can help lead our nation’s economic recovery out of this crisis,” he said. “But in order to get to that point Washington must act NOW to extend,” stimulus to the carriers. That’s something Congress has been unable to do since last March.

Adam Shapiro is co-anchor of Yahoo Finance Live 3pm to 5pm.

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