Skift Take

There's no doubt airlines are in better fiscal shape than during previous cycles. But is all this investor enthusiasm warranted? Many U.S. airlines are facing increased competition from low-cost airlines at home and abroad.

Airlines climbed to a record after Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway Inc. increased its stakes in the four biggest U.S. carriers, adding to a bet that industry consolidation will end the boom-and-bust cycles the billionaire long shunned.

Berkshire’s latest purchases made it the largest shareholder in Delta Air Lines Inc. and United Continental Holdings Inc., and No. 2 in American Airlines Group Inc. and Southwest Airlines Co. The holdings represent one of the biggest common-stock investments in years for the company controlled by Buffett, who once called airlines “a death trap for investors.”

The six biggest U.S. carriers — bolstered by lower jet-fuel prices and years of dealmaking that left fewer major competitors — posted their fifth straight year of profits in 2016, earning about $14 billion on an adjusted basis, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. That helped soften memories of the previous decade, in which losses surpassed $50 billion.

“While some longer-term investors have recognized the positive structural and behavioral industry changes for years now, these investments provide further validation,” Duane Pfennigwerth, an analyst at Evercore ISI, said in a note to clients Wednesday. He called Berkshire’s change of heart on airlines “one of the biggest pivots in the history of investing.”

The Bloomberg U.S. Airlines Index rose 2 percent at 1:20 p.m. in New York after advancing as much as 3.4 percent to the highest level on record. Southwest led major carriers, rising 3.1 percent to $57.06. All 11 members of the index posted gains.

Increased Holdings

Berkshire’s stakes in American, Delta and United increased to more than $2 billion each, according to a U.S. regulatory filing Tuesday. Buffett’s Omaha, Nebraska-based investment company also disclosed a holding in Southwest valued at about $2.2 billion as of Dec. 31.

American’s chief executive officer, Doug Parker, helped win over Buffett lieutenant Ted Weschler last year with his argument that a transformed airline industry was poised for steady returns, Bloomberg News reported this month.

By controlling expansion and better matching the supply of seats and flights with demand, airlines “are behaving in a way that is positive for shareholders,” said Jim Corridore, a CFRA Research analyst.

“They do not look to expand at any cost, they’re not each looking to be the
biggest carrier,” he said in an interview. “They’re looking to be the most profitable, and this has changed their strategy.”

–With assistance from Noah Buhayar and Michael Sasso

©2017 Bloomberg L.P.

This article was written by Mary Schlangenstein from Bloomberg and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.

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Tags: airlines, american airlines, delta air lines, southwest airlines, united airlines

Photo credit: Berkshire Hathaway CEO and Chairman Warren Buffett speaks on Fox Business Network in 2013. His company is a big investor in U.S. airline stocks. Nati Harnik / Associated Press

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