Airline stocks in recent weeks have been flying through turbulence, caught up in an election-year battle in Washington over a second stimulus bill. The industry has been hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic, and with a full recovery likely years away airlines can use all the help they can get.

The focus on Washington is understandable, but investors with a long time horizon would be better served ignoring the stimulus talk and focusing on when travel will rebound. Airline stocks are off their spring lows, but still down big for the year.

The stock prices are well suited for value investors, but still carry a lot of risk and uncertainty. Here's a look at where the industry stands right now, and whether it is safe to buy in.

LUV Chart

Airline stock data by YCharts

There is a long, painful journey ahead...

If you want to know how bad things are for the airlines, look no further than industry leader Southwest Airlines (LUV 2.35%). It is the lone large U.S. airline to never go through a bankruptcy restructuring, and famously has never even had to resort to involuntary layoffs.

Southwest has nearly two years' worth of cash on hand, and for now is avoiding furloughs thanks to a strong response from employees to voluntary retirement and leave programs. But CEO Gary Kelly in a message to employees Oct. 5 said top management salaries will be cut by 20% through at least 2021, and that he would be pressing union leaders for more concessions.

"My goal has been and remains -- no furloughs," Kelly said. "If we fail to reach agreement on reasonable concessions -- quickly -- that will be the last resort. We don't have time for long, drawn-out, complex negotiations."

That the industry's healthiest company has already given up hope for a recovery until 2022 at the earliest should send shivers down the spines of investors and airline management teams alike. Southwest obviously sees continued troubles up ahead.

View out the window from an empty airport terminal.

Image source: Getty Images.

... And Washington can't do much to help

Those Southwest jobs, as well as tens of thousands at other airlines, are the focus of the debate in Washington. Lawmakers from both parties support a continuation of payroll support provided under the CARES Act for another six months, though as of this writing nothing concrete has come from the effort.

It's important to note that the outcome of the debate will do little to impact airline balance sheets or their ability to survive the crisis. With the airlines flying barely half their schedules from last year and revenue down by more than 70% year over year the companies need to cut costs and downsize. The legislation would likely only put off the inevitable by subsidizing the carriers to keep workers on board.

That's not to say the airlines don't want the assistance. The stimulus would allow the airlines to avoid what could be contentious battles with labor groups. And having the workers in the building would help airlines respond more quickly to any uptick in demand, and could allow them to avoid costly retraining and recertification procedures down the line.

But the outcome of the debate in Washington doesn't change my view on whether the sector is investible, and what stocks are the most attractive.

Focus on quality

The airlines are still bleeding through tens of millions of dollars in cash per day, and until we know exactly how and when the pandemic crisis is resolved it is impossible to say for sure it is safe to buy into the stocks. That said, even the weakest carriers have substantial liquidity and I believe in all but the worst scenarios the U.S. industry can avoid bankruptcies.

It will likely be at least 2022 before we see a full recovery, and it is hard to imagine the stocks completely rebounding until we see clear signs of growth. But for those with the patience to ride out the storm, I believe it is safe to buy airline stocks as part of a well-diversified portfolio.

Note that all airlines are not equal. Companies like American Airlines Group (AAL -1.55%), with more than $30 billion in total debt, are riskier in the near term and are likely to be hamstrung down the line as other airlines begin to recover.

Southwest is the safest bet in the industry, but trading at 12 times expected earnings it is also relatively pricey. I prefer Delta Air Lines (DAL 0.42%), trading at just eight times forward earnings but with arguably nearly as much staying power as Southwest.

It's ok to nibble at airline stocks right now. Just buckle up and settle in for a long flight.