It’s fair to say it has been a tough couple of years for the commercial aviation sector and investors in airline stocks. In 2019 the sector enjoyed record passenger numbers and 2020 was expected to be better yet. Low cost airlines were expanding aggressively, as they had been for years, and national carriers, in response, had made strides in cutting costs and introducing other efficiencies.
Then the Covid-19 pandemic struck, devastating the sector. Over the early part of the pandemic when international travel was severely restricted, airlines operated skeleton schedules. Severely reduced capacity, and schedules regularly interrupted by new lockdowns and shifting government policies bedevilled the sector for the next two years.
Even over the past few months which have seen most pandemic-related travel restrictions drop, a spate of new problems has hampered the sector’s recovery. Staff shortages, the result of a combination of the continuing need for those that become infected with Covid-19 to isolate and a tight labour market, have been a major headache. London-listed easyJet recently cut its capacity forecasts as a result of staffing issues.
And last week over 700 Heathrow airport staff voted to strike over the peak summer period, which promises chaos, and hundreds of cancelled flights, if an agreement can’t be reached over pay in the meanwhile. Staff at three Spanish airports are also calling for industrial action this summer and strikes are a threat elsewhere around Europe’s favourite holiday destinations.
Sky high fuel costs will also put pressure on margins this summer and potentially well into next year and a growing cost of living crisis sparked by inflation levels at 40-year highs will not help demand.
Airline share prices have predictably slumped since the onset of the pandemic. EasyJet’s valuation is down over 50% in the past year and over 75% since summer 2018. Its shares haven’t been worth as little as they currently are since early January 2012.
Hope on the horizon?
But despite the fact the immediate future still looks tough for airlines, there are a number of reasons why investors might consider dipping into their stocks now or in the months ahead.
The first is that the bulk of the problems that have crushed airline valuations over the past couple of years have been external factors outwith control and unrelated to the underlying quality of companies. They are also all problems that are expected to be temporary and will ease in future. Covid-19 restrictions are, with the notable exception of China, no longer a big issue and hopefully won’t return. And even China recently reduced its mandatory quarantine period for anyone arriving in the country from two weeks to seven days.
That’s still problematic but a sign that an end to the dark cloud of the pandemic may finally be in sight. Most airlines were forced to either take on significant new debt or raise cash through equity issues that diluted existing shareholders, or through mechanisms such as selling and leasing back aircraft.
It will take time for that gearing to be unwound and balance sheets brought back to health. But the sector will eventually recover from the pandemic which should see higher valuations return, providing a buying opportunity at current depressed levels.
Airlines that have come out of the pandemic in the strongest positions will also likely gain market share from weaker rivals, improving their future prospects. British Airways owner IAG, for example, currently has access to more than £10 billion in cash after raising capital to cover losses over the pandemic. EasyJet has access to £4.4 billion. That means both should be well placed to cover any continuing short term losses until passenger numbers return to 2019 levels and push their advantage over less well-capitalised rivals.
Both IAG and easyJet have also seen their passenger capacity improve significantly in recent months. Over the all-important summer quarter to September, the latter expects its passenger capacity to reach 90% of 2019 levels despite the ongoing operational challenges. IAG expects to return to 90% of 2019 capacity over the last quarter of the year.
A full recovery to 2019 levels is possible by next year even if higher costs are likely to mean ticket price increases are inevitable. That does pose a risk for near-term leisure travel demand but there is confidence that remaining pent-up demand from the pandemic period will help soften the impact on discretionary spending on international travel that might have otherwise been more pronounced. Western consumers have also, the pandemic period apart, become so accustomed to taking foreign holidays that some analysts now question if they should still be considered discretionary spending rather than a staple.
Despite the transient and external nature of the problems that have hit easyJet’s valuation, not all analysts are convinced the current share price offers good value even despite its depressed level. They still look relatively expensive given the risks still facing the sector at a forward price-to-earnings ratio of close to x160.
IAG could offer better value, currently trading at a price-to-earnings ratio of just x5.8 for next year. It is also expected to reverse return to a healthy profit by 2023. The company also has exposure to the budget airline market through Vueling and Aer Lingus and while it abandoned its move to take over Air Europa late last year it shows it has ambitions to further expand in this area. And it has plenty of capital available to it to make major acquisitions that could fuel growth when the sector recovers.
IAG’s cheap valuation does reflect the risks it faces over the next couple of years but for investors willing to take on a little more risk the potential upside looks attractive.
A dollar-denominated airline stock play
On the other side of the Atlantic, American airlines also suffered during the pandemic but are now recovering strongly. For British investors, dollar-denominated U.S. stocks also offer the attraction of potential gains in pound sterling terms as a result of a strengthening U.S. dollar. The Fed’s more aggressive raising of interest rates compared to the ECB or Bank of England is boosting the dollar against the pound and euro and it is also benefitting from its safe haven status during a period of economic stress.
One U.S. airline that looks particularly interesting right now is Southwest Airlines, the world’s largest low cost carrier. The USA’s domestic travel market has recovered so strongly this year that Southwest expects its Q2 revenues to be 10% higher than those over the same three months in 2019. It’s already profitable again and earnings per share are forecast to come in at $2.67 for 2022 and then leap to $3.84 in 2023. It’s a much more profitable operator than easyjet.
It also, unusually for an American airline, hedges a lot of its oil. That’s expected to see it achieve much better operating margins this year, predicted to reach 15.5% in Q2, than other airlines being hit by much higher fuel costs. The company isn’t immune to the risk of the impact the inflationary squeeze could have on leisure travel but is seen as one of the most resilient airlines in the sector. It could be a better bet than either of its two London-listed peers.