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Delta Air Lines, Inc. (DAL) & United Continental Holdings Inc (UAL): Is It Finally Time To Sell Airline Stocks?

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For nearly two years, investors have had to climb a wall of worry with regards to airline stocks.

Delta Air Lines, Inc. (NYSE:DAL)Back then, I suggested that my favorite industry operator, Delta Air Lines, Inc. (NYSE:DAL) was poised to double and the subsequent 145% gain has led a group that has fared quite well.

Simply put, investors were ignoring the too-low price-to-earnings ratios, and instead focused on the trauma that airline stocks had induced in the past as they shifted in and out of bankruptcy. These carriers’ financial position is so much stronger than in the past that AMR may well be the last industry bankruptcy we see for a very long time.

Just four months ago, I reiterated my ardor for Delta, and the carrier subsequently raised June quarterguidance in mid-June, thanks to falling jet fuel prices. But quite suddenly, Delta Air Lines, Inc. (NYSE:DAL) and its peers look a lot less enticing. This chart should tell you why.

A nearly $20 spike in crude oil in the past three months is bound to wreak havoc on profits in coming quarters, and you’ll be hearing a lot more about it as the major carriers deliver second-quarter results over the next two weeks.

The Impact On Jet Fuel
Just a month ago, industry analysts had been using the current spot price of jet fuel (roughly $2.74) per gallon, and though there is a lag time between crude oil price moves and jet fuel prices, the price for jet fuel is now on the rise. According to the International Air Transport Association (IATA), jet fuel prices have risen 5.7% in the past month (to a recent $2.94 a gallon), and appear headed for $3 a gallon by the time the major carriers start to report results next week. Note that crude oil prices have risen more than 10% in the past month, so jet fuel has more room to move to adjust to the higher input price.

As long as crude oil prices remain above $100 a barrel, the airline industry will be dealing with higher jet fuel costs — its largest expense after personnel — which will make year-over-year profit comparisons challenged in coming quarters. That’s not a concern for the second quarter, as the table below notes.

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