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Alaska Air Group Continues to Impress

The airline industry has always been a notoriously difficult space for investors to navigate over the years. However, one company has made the process of investing in airliners a lot easier. Regional carrier Alaska Air Group (NYSE: ALK  ) , which continues to excel on many levels, remains my top growth pick in the industry.

The company's latest operational results for the month of March highlight some of the often-overlooked strengths of Alaska Air Group. Going forward, there is little doubt the company will continue to maintain a significant edge over competitors like JetBlue Airways (NASDAQ: JBLU  ) .

Source: Company Facebook. 

Operational results
Recently, Alaska Air Group reported its monthly and year-to-date operational statistics, and the results were most impressive, indicating the company continues to excel at what it does best, which is serve consumers better than any of its competitors.

For March 2014, the Alaska Airlines flight brand's "on-time arrivals" statistic increased to an impressive 88.1%, which is a significant improvement over March 2013, in which the company posted a stat of 85.5%. 

Why it matters
While seemingly insignificant, this stat is important because Alaska Airlines is known for having top of the line customer service, which is what affords the company its loyal consumer base. From 2010 to 2013, the airline brand has won the top spot in FlightStats' On-Time Major North American Airline, beating out all other eligible carriers.

FlightStats' CEO Jeff Kennedy explained, "We at FlightStats congratulate Alaska Airlines in their achievement of delivering outstanding on-time performance for their passengers. FlightStats takes pride in maintaining the integrity of all airlines' performance reporting and recognizes what an accomplishment it is to maintain a level of excellence as Alaska Airlines has for the last four years." 

The company also routinely ranks No. 1 in overall customer satisfaction by JD Power. For six years in a row, the Alaska Airlines brand has been named the top network carrier. 

Since the company's main flight brand is universally recognized for its outstanding customer service, travelers with a choice will undoubtedly choose to fly Alaskan Airlines. This is especially important for two reasons. The first is that it allows the company to ward off discount competitors like JetBlue Airways in its signature Alaskan flight market.

In late 2012, JetBlue announced it would begin servicing Anchorage in May of 2013. While discount rates from JetBlue are potentially hazardous for Alaska Air Group, the company's strong consumer loyalty coupled with the fact that the company can overwhelm JetBlue through sheer volume of flights means the competition in The Last Frontier should remain minimal. 

Secondly, a strong brand among consumers will continue to help Alaska Air Group expand its flight routes. This means less dependency on valuable but niche markets like Alaska. In the last decade, the company's Alaska market, as a percentage of total network composition, has shrunk from 21% in 2003 to 15% in 2013. Markets such as Hawaii and Arizona and Nevada, which didn't even exist for the company 10 years ago, and transcontinental have grown significantly in the same time period.

In last quarter's conference call, company management already announced seven new nonstop routes. The first route, Portland-Salt Lake City, is scheduled to begin in June. These new routes follow on the heels of the 10 new flights routed that were added in the company's fourth quarter of 2013 alone. 

Source: Alaska Air Facebook page

Strong fundamentals
The other part of Alaska Air Group that remains impressive is the company's industry-leading fundamentals. Although only recently instated, the company's dividend of $1.00 is equal to a yield of 1.1%. Considering JetBlue does not pay a dividend, like most other airline companies, Alaska Air Group's performance in this regard is impressive.

Also, the company maintains a high return on invested capital metric. At 18.1%, which compares favorably to JetBlue's paltry 1.7%, management at Alaska Air Group has proven itself very successful at effectively allocating and investing capital.

Bottom line
Alaska Air Group's strong operational results for March indicate that the company's top-notch service is only becoming stronger. This affords the company an invaluable edge among consumers and should help Alaska Air Group continue to dominate the Alaskan flight market, and enter new ones aggressively as well.

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  • Report this Comment On April 06, 2014, at 10:14 AM, Fly2014 wrote:

    While I firmly agree with Alaska Airlines financial performance, I do have great concern with their ability to grow out of their defined market. This has become evident as the CEO has had to defend the company on its ability to open and grow new markets. Certainly when we think of cities like Boston to San Diego the traveling public does not put in their minds to fly Alaska Airlines. With increasing pressure from Delta on many fronts, I feel Alaska Airlines will face tremendous pricing pressure reducing RASM,

    In order to compete and be relevant I feel a three way merger between Alaska, Hawaiian and Jetblue would benefit all three and ROIC to its shareholders.

    Alaska's west coast, Mexican network, and draw down the competition with Hawaiian redistribute some 737 to fill in the middle of the country.

    Hawaiian which is developing a nice pacific network out to Sydney, Soul, Toyko, Bejing...also having a favor oboe order book with A330, A350XWB, A321 NEO. Take some heavies place them in JFK and FLL Deep South America.

    Jetblue having a very strong east coast, Caribbean, Central America. Bases and slots in the most coveted population bases in the country. I'm not buying the CEO's "Organic Growth" mantra. He is under the gun to get ROIC up. Investors are wondering where the payoff is. The fact is it's putting off getting ROIC by many capital investments which reduces showing larger end year profits.

    So how long should one wait to start seeing returns on JetBlue.

    Jetblue's pilots are currently in the throws of another union vote with ALPA. Consensus is it will be successful this time,

    Alaska, Hawaiian and then JetBlue will be ALPA.

    I see a merger of these three as a win win win enabling it to have a nice growing global network, being able to compete with the mega carriers. Similar cultures, all profitable, producing returns for stock holders.

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Philip Saglimbeni

Philip is an avid investor and writer. He contributes to The Motley Fool and Seeking Alpha. You can follow Philip on Twitter @philsags.

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