What happened

Shares of American Airlines Group (AAL 0.64%) traded down by as much as 4.7% on Monday after Citi cut its price target on the stock. The carrier is more vulnerable than most of its peers in the event of a downturn, according to the bank's analyst. As of 1:24 p.m. ET, the airline's shares were off by 3.9%.

So what

Airline investors have endured a rough couple of years. The pandemic drastically crimped demand for air travel, which compelled airlines to cut costs and take on billions in new debt and equity financing to survive. Their fledgling comeback in 2022 has been stunted by higher fuel and labor costs, and now investors worry that rising interest rates and an economic slowdown might eat into travel demand.

If the sector does hit turbulence, Citi analyst Stephen Trent would rather not be flying with American. On Monday, Trent lowered his price target on American shares to $15.75 from $22, and kept a neutral rating in place. Trent wrote that American's financial leverage is higher than its peers, and it faces more regulatory uncertainty than other large carriers due to its recent agreements with JetBlue Airways and other partners.

Trent also says that revenue trends on American's top 25 routes look less robust than those of its peers, putting the carrier in a difficult position.

Now what

It is worth noting that Trent kept a neutral rating on the stock, and even if the economy does turn south, American should have the wherewithal to survive. The question for investors is how long might it be until it thrives. Trent is likely correct in saying American is a poor choice to pick as a potential leader of the pack.

Airlines have greatly benefited from the restructuring and consolidation that took place over the last decade, but American was the last to join the party and entered the pandemic behind rivals such as Delta Air Lines and United Airlines Holdings in terms of restructuring its operations and pricing.

Given the uncertainty about what lies ahead, investors would be wise to stick with carriers that are better positioned to gain altitude ahead of the fleet. For those willing to wait out a potential economic downturn, Delta is a better choice right now.