Are Airlines Ready for Takeoff?

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Key Takeaways:

  • The shift of consumer spending from goods to services has helped revive travel demand. This trend likely has staying power.
  • Flight bookings have tripled over the last few years, with leisure travel now back above pre-pandemic levels.
  • Load factors, which reflect the percentage of available seats an airline sells on a flight, have climbed to their highest levels since 2019.
  • The outlook for airline industry revenues and earnings remains bullish.
  • The technical setup for airline stocks points to further outperformance ahead.

Background

After a turbulent descent during the pandemic, the airline industry is finally showing signs of recovering. The transition of consumer spending from goods to services has helped revive travel demand. This trend likely has staying power. According to LPL Research Chief Economist Jeffrey Roach, the share of services spending is still roughly 2.5 percentage points below pre-pandemic levels, meaning consumers would need to spend $450 billion on services to normalize the composition of goods and services spending (see the latest Weekly Market Commentary for more details).

Scheduled Flights are Taking Off

The shift to services spending is evident in scheduled flight data. The chart below highlights the number of scheduled flights booked from May 2020 to August 2023, broken down by all global flights and flights within North America. During this timeframe, scheduled flight bookings for both geographic segments have more than tripled.

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Recovering at a Leisurely Pace

Leisure travel bookings have been a major diver of the recovery in airline demand. The chart below depicts the variance in the total number of leisure and corporate airline tickets purchased compared to the same period in 2019. For example, if the total number of leisure travel tickets sold in December 2019 was 100,000 and the total number of leisure travel tickets sold in December 2022 was 125,000, the leisure line would be at +25%. As highlighted below, the number of leisure travel tickets sold has fully recovered from the pandemic and is now back above 2019 levels. The total number of corporate tickets sold is trending in the right direction but remains 26% below bookings in 2019.

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Flight Path to Profitability

So consumers are spending more on services and flying more—but are airlines making money? The short answer is yes, based on an improving trajectory of available seat miles (ASM) and revenue passenger miles (RPM). ASM represents the total miles of a flight multiplied by the number of available seats on the flight, which ultimately equates to the airplane’s carrying capacity. RPM represents the number of paying passengers on a flight multiplied by the total miles of the flight. If you divide the RPM by ASM you get the load factor, which reflects the percentage of available seats an airline sells on its flight. The higher the load factor the better the airline is at selling seats and generating revenue.

The chart below highlights the ASM, RSM, and load factor trends for the broader airline industry. All three metrics are trending higher, including the load factor, which recently reached its highest level since 2019 (the load factor non-normalized reached 83.5% at the end of 2022).

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The improving load capacity is also showing up in estimates. For the S&P Composite 1500 Airlines Index, sales are expected to climb 28% in both 2023 and 2024, with earnings expected to more than double in 2023.  Glen Hauenstein, President of Delta, one of the world’s largest airlines, echoed the improving industry outlook on their latest earnings call in January. Hauenstein noted, “Consumer demand remains healthy with advanced bookings significantly ahead on both yield and load factor for each month of the March quarter compared to 2019. And in our recent corporate survey, results were positive with 96% of respondents expecting to travel as much or more in 1Q than 4Q, led by financial services. In the new year, bookings reflect the survey optimism and are accelerating.”

Technical Setup

The technical setup for the broader airline space is also improving. The S&P Composite 1500 Airlines Index, shown below, recently broke out from a bottom formation after reversing a two-year downtrend. Momentum is confirming the trend reversal, evidenced by the 50-day moving average crossing above the 200-day moving average (golden crossover) and a recent Moving Average Convergence/Divergence (MACD) buy signal. In addition, relative strength has turned bullish, as the S&P Composite 1500 Airlines Index vs S&P 500 ratio chart has formed a new uptrend, suggesting further airline outperformance ahead.

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Original articled post to LPL Research by Adam Turnquist, CMT, VP Chief Technical Strategist


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