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Snow can't stop hot airline stocks

January 21, 2014: 1:09 PM ET
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Come fly with me! Delta's stock is off to a great start in 2014 after surging last year. In fact, all the airlines are soaring.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Paul R. La Monica. Other than Time Warner, the parent of CNNMoney, Abbott Laboratories and AbbVie, La Monica does not own positions in any individual stocks.

The East Coast is bracing for The Polar Vortex 2: The Wrath of Snow. Airlines are already cancelling flights again. And that will lead to a lot of angry customers.

But do you know who's not mad at airlines? Investors.

Delta Air Lines (DAL) reported earnings that topped forecasts on Tuesday morning. Shares were up nearly 3%. The stock has now gained more than 15% so far in 2014. And that's on top of a 130% surge for Delta in 2013.

Delta is the exception to last week's column on momentum stocks from last year that have turned into dogs in 2014. And it's not the only airline stock that's hit cruising altitude.

In fact, the five biggest gainers in the Dow Jones Transportation Average so far this year are airlines: United Continental (UAL), Delta, Southwest (LUV) Alaska Airlines (ALK) and JetBlue (JBLU).

Yes. JetBlue is feeling the love of Wall Street -- the stock is up 7% in 2014 -- even though it was maligned by flyers for how it handled the last big snowstorm earlier this month. Guess what? It had to cancel a large number of flights again Tuesday.

Related: JetBlue tries to repair the damage

And I haven't even mentioned the new American yet. American Airlines Group (AAL), formed from the merger of the bankrupt AMR and US Airways, is up more than 35% since AAL began trading last month.

What gives? Airlines are a classic case of why you shouldn't necessarily confuse good customer service with a good stock. Even though most travelers don't often have nice things to say about the experience of flying, the airline business doesn't have to do much to improve its image.

The business is now a highly profitable oligopoly after a series of mergers over the past decade and a half. So long, TWA! See ya, Northwest! Bye-bye America West!

The sad reality is that if you don't like a particular airline, you're probably stuck trying to fly on another one ... that may not be much better. But what are you going to do? Not fly? If you are going on a last-minute business trip across the country, air travel is pretty much the only option.

And if you don't live in California and you want to take the kids to Disneyland, you're going to fly ... unless you're a masochist or Clark Griswold from "National Lampoon's Vacation" is your hero. ("Why aren't we flying? Because getting there is half the fun. You know that.")

What that means is most airlines can feel free to nickel and dime customers with various charges for checking bags, food and what have you. (Although it would be nice if it was just nickeling and diming. It's more like Jackson-ing and Franklin-ing. $25 for one bag? Seriously? $100 fee to change a ticket?)

But this all adds up to a compelling reason why airline stocks are no longer one of the ugliest sectors of the market. The days of profit margin destroying fare wars are long gone. This is an industry operating out of a position of strength, not desperation.

Related: Can Boeing keep flying high in 2014?

Of course, jet fuel prices and the global economic outlook in general are always the huge wild cards for the airlines. But as of right now, analysts expect Delta's earnings to increase an average of 15% a year annually over the next few years.

And that makes Delta the slowest grower among the major carriers. Analysts are forecasting long-term earnings growth rates of above 40% a year for United and Southwest and more than 60% for American.

Despite these tech-like growth projections, the stocks are still relatively cheap. American trades at less than 9 times 2014 earnings forecasts. United and Delta have 2014 price-to-earnings ratios in the mid-teens.

Related: U.S. airlines want to stay cell phone free

Southwest is the priciest, trading at nearly 17 times this year's profit forecasts. But considering that Southwest has avoided the bankruptcy fate that has befallen United, Delta and American, you could make a reasonable case for why Southwest deserves a premium. It historically has been the best run of the big airlines. It's the Ford (F) of the group.

Yes, investing in airlines may be inherently risky. A lot of things are not in their control. And it's hard to shake the perception that these companies are just poorly run businesses that will cut fares in a heartbeat if it meant more market share.

Still, the industry has come a long way from the dark days of gallons of red ink and routine Chapter 11 filings. And the very reasons why we hate flying on the big airlines so much are precisely the reasons why they are now worthwhile stocks to own for the long haul.

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