By Mitchell Clark
If there's one industry sector that's volatile, cyclical, often unprofitable, and typically attracts poor consumer ratings, it's the airline sector.
But this group of transportation stocks is a powerful indicator. Airline stocks move at the beginning of bull markets and new business cycles. The airline sector has been on fire lately.
A top performer and recent new listing is Spirit Airlines, Inc. (NASDAQ:SAVE). Based out of Miramar, Florida, Spirit Airlines is a low-fare operator flying to 50 destinations in the U.S., Latin America, and the Caribbean with some 250 flights per day. The stock was listed on May 26, 2011.
This is a growth story that could not have been timed more perfectly. The stock is soaring based on strong growth in revenue passenger miles and improving load factors. It's a momentum stock you should have on your radar now.
Airline stocks are very good at losing money, but not at the beginning of a new business cycle, which I believe is where we are at this time.
The fact that most airline stocks have been appreciating strongly on the stock market based on real, underlying economic growth is a big positive. If airlines are making money, the bears face another big obstacle.
As mentioned, Spirit Airlines is a growth story. The company is generating the kind of numbers you might associate with a fast-growing technology stock. This is a story of the right business in the right place at the right time. The company's stock chart is featured below:
Spirit Airlines generated fourth-quarter 2013 revenues of $420 million, representing a gain of 28% over the same quarter of the previous year. (Fourth-quarter 2012 numbers were impacted by Hurricane Sandy.)
For all of last year, total revenues grew to $1.65 billion, up 25.5% over 2012.
Operating income in the fourth quarter of 2013 was $68.0 million, up 113% compared to $32.0 million in the same year-ago period. For fiscal year 2013, operating income rose 62% to $282 million.
Net earnings in the latest quarter came in at $43.2 million, or $0.59 per diluted share, representing a gain of 120% over earnings of $19.6 million in the fourth quarter of 2012.
The company launched services in 25 new markets in 2013; it finished the fourth quarter last year with $530.6 million in cash and equivalents, with zero debt on its balance sheet. The business now has 54 aircraft in its fleet for a 20% gain over 2012.
Delta Air Lines, Inc. (NYSE:DAL), Alaska Air Group, Inc. (NYSE:ALK), and Southwest Airlines Co. (NYSE:LUV) are trading right around their all-time record-highs on the stock market. These stocks have been going up because institutional investors are buying their numbers and the bottom line is that these businesses are experiencing solid growth in operations.
Airline stocks are perhaps the most important component in the transportation equity universe, as they are indicators of future economic conditions and their action is often a precursor for the broader market.
If airline stocks are doing well, then the bearish scenario is incomplete. Whether the momentum continues with soaring airline stocks is anyone's guess, but they are a classic, early-stage bull market indicator.