Southwest Airlines Co. (LUV), US Airways Group, Inc. (LCC), Delta Air Lines, Inc. (DAL): This Airliner Could Continue to Outperform

Thanks to rising disposable income and recovering global economies, investing in airlines has again become a profitable affair. Yes, there are growth stocks in the industry, but Southwest Airlines Co. (NYSE:LUV) seems like a value play. Over the last year, its shares have appreciated by nearly 35%, yet the company still seems to be gaining ground. Analysts estimate that its annual EPS will grow by over 21% for the next five years. Here are a few reasons why I love the company.

Business Restructuring

Earnings Analysis: Southwest Airlines Co. (NYSE:LUV)Although its load factor in January slid by 1.7%, the company was able to increase its passenger capacity by 0.5%. Moreover, its passenger revenues per average seat miles (PRASM) in January rose by 2%, and the management expects higher PRASMs in March due to high bookings. According to its senior VP of finance, Southwest Airlines Co. (NYSE:LUV) will be increasing its passenger capacity by 2% in FY13. According to my calculations, respective increases in ASMs and PRASMs should boost its revenues by around 5%, assuming a constant load factor and constant fares.

Management also said that it repaid $39 million of its recent acquisition AirTran’s debt this year, and would be paying $220 million in FY13. Interest rates for these loans are not known, and going by the industry average of 5%, these repayments should save Southwest around $11 million in annual interest expenses. Southwest Airlines Co. (NYSE:LUV) is not hard pressed for cash, as its debt/equity stands at a modest 45%. Moreover, it was also announced that its ROIC could increase to 15% in FY13, up from the current 7%. Altogether, these moves contribute to a solid restructuring plan, and I think the best is yet to come.

A Hike in Fares?

I think that the merger of US Airways Group, Inc. (NYSE:LCC) with the bankrupt AMR Corporation (PINK:AAMRQ) could be beneficial for all airlines, including Southwest.

Once the merger is through, the joint entity will be operating with 6,700 daily flights in 336 locations. I think that with less competition, airlines would feel free to hike their fares. Delta Air Lines, Inc. (NYSE:DAL) tried to raise prices earlier this year, but failed because other airlines did not follow suit.

Even if less competition doesn’t bring higher fares, rising oil prices should give airlines like Southwest another reason to increase their fares.

Investors’ Delight

Southwest also has a $1 billion share repurchase program under way. As announced on March 6, the company has already repurchased nearly $725 million worth of its shares, and $275 million still remains. This amounts to a pending repurchase of nearly 22 million shares, and should reduce its dividend burden by nearly 3%. Besides highlighting the faith of the board, share repurchases artificially add to the EPS, and reduce the burden on  management to report growth even when there is no room for it.

Company Forward P/E P/FCF Gross Profit Margin Debt/Equity
Southwest Airlines 10.09x 12.71x 17.56% 45%
Delta Airlines 5.3x 26.42x 6.96% 1186%
US Airways 4.64% NA 34.68% 607%