Airline Stocks: The Good, the Bad, the Ugly

Suddenly airline stocks are hot after decades of being in the dog house. But are they really that great? Or is the group just working off of very low expectations?

This article was originally published by Zacks.com.

Suddenly, airline stocks are hot. After decades of being in the dog house, airline stocks are one of THE top Wall Street stories of 2013.

CNBC's Jim Cramer recently said he's hated airline stocks since 1985 but consolidation in the industry means that the price wars are over so it's an investable business again. He's finally recommending airline stocks again this year.

Legg Mason's Bill Miller, whose Capital Management Opportunity mutual fund was one of the top performers over the last 12 months, according to Morningstar, owns not just one but three airline stocks. He's been vocal about his love of airline stocks in interviews over the past few months.

But are they really that great?

Or is the group just working off of very low expectations?

No strong buys

Using the Zacks Rank, which measures rising earnings estimates, I set out to find the good within the airline sector. Unfortunately, I also found the bad and the downright ugly.

Given how hot the industry is, I expected to see a couple of Zacks Rank #1 (Strong Buys) among the group. But I was wrong. In fact, out of the 23 companies that Zacks lists as being in the airline industry, not a single one has a Zacks Rank #1.

Perhaps that's why the airline industry has a low Zacks Industry Rank of 248 out of 265. That rank means 94% of all industries rank higher than the airlines. That's not great.

Still, there must be SOME hidden gems among the group, right?

The good

There's no contest. Only one airline fits the "good" category right now.

Only Alaska Air Group, Inc. (ALK) has a Zacks Rank #2 (Buy).

The analysts are bullish on Alaska Air. Four estimates have moved higher for 2013 in the last 30 days. Earnings are expected to grow 14% in both 2013 and 2014.

It has an attractive forward price-to-earnings ratio (P/E) of 11 and a price-to-sales (P/S) ratio of 0.9. A P/S ratio under 1.0 can mean a company is undervalued.

Shares have soared in 2013, only recently hitting a bump and pulling back from new 52-week highs.

There are also 13 companies that are Zacks Rank #3 (Hold) stocks, including US Airways (LCC), one of the stocks Miller's Capital Management Opportunity currently owns.

The bad

But not everything is as rosy in the airline industry as all the articles and recommendations make it seem. Five companies out of 23 are Zacks Rank #4 (Sell) stocks.

One of those is Gol Linhas (GOL), the low-cost Brazilian carrier that many like to call “the Southwest of Latin America.” While Brazil was expected to be the next big market for airlines, rising fuel costs and an increase in landing fees in Brazil have hit Gol Linhas hard.

On March 26, the company reported its fourth quarter results and missed the Zacks Consensus by 109%. It hasn't beat the Zacks Consensus since 2011.

Gol Linhas is expected to see a loss of $0.04 this year coming on the heels of a loss of $2.88 last year and $1.55 in 2011. The company announced it was cutting domestic flights by 7% this year in order to try and get profitable.

Shares followed the rest of the sector higher in 2013 but sold off after the recent disappointing earnings report.

The ugly

Four of the airlines are Zacks Rank #5 (Strong Sells), including Hawaiian Holdings, the holding company for Hawaiian Airlines, which provides service between the Hawaiian islands, the West Coast, and Tahiti, Korea, Japan and Australia.

Hawaiian Holdings Inc. (HA) has been expanding by adding non-stop service to New York and flying to more international destinations. However, a big 100% earnings miss last quarter has analysts lowering 2013 estimates.

Over the last 90 days, the 2013 Zacks Consensus Estimate has dropped to $1.05 from $1.48 per share. Earnings are now expected to decline by 1% in 2013.

Shares are cheap, with a forward P/E of just 5, but after peaking in very early 2013, they have slid sharply and are trading near a multi-month low.

Tracey Ryniec is the Value Stock Strategist for Zacks.com. She is also the Editor of the Turnaround Trader and Value Investor services. You can follow her on twitter at @TraceyRyniec.