Dividend payers deserve a berth in any long-term stock portfolio. But seemingly attractive dividend yields are not always as fetching as they may appear. Let's see which companies in the airline industry offer the most promising dividends.

Yields and growth rates and payout ratios, oh my!
Before we get to those companies, though, you should understand just why you'd want to own dividend payers. These stocks can contribute a huge chunk of growth to your portfolio in good times, and bolster it during market downturns.

As my colleague Matt Koppenheffer has noted: "Between 2000 and 2009, the average dividend-adjusted return on stocks with market caps above $5 billion and a trailing yield of 2.5% or better was a whopping 114%. Compare that to a 19% drop for the S&P 500."

When hunting for promising dividend payers, unsophisticated investors will often just look for the highest yields they can find. While these stocks will indeed pay out the most, the yield figures apply only for the current year. Extremely steep dividend yields can be precarious, and even solid ones are vulnerable to dividend cuts.

When evaluating a company's attractiveness in terms of its dividend, it's important to examine at least three factors:

  1. The current yield
  2. The dividend growth
  3. The payout ratio

If a company has a middling dividend yield, but a history of increasing its payment substantially from year to year, it deserves extra consideration. A $3 dividend can become $7.80 in 10 years, if it grows at 10% annually. (It will top $20 after 20 years.) Thus, a 3% yield today may be more attractive than a 4% one, if the 3% company is rapidly increasing that dividend.

Next, consider the company's payout ratio, which reflects what percentage of income the company is spending on its dividend. In general, the lower the number, the better. A low payout ratio means there's plenty of room for generous dividend increases. It also means that much of the company's income remains in its hands, giving it a lot of flexibility. That money can fund the business's expansion, pay off debt, buy back shares, or even buy other companies. A steep payout ratio reflects little flexibility for the company, less room for dividend growth, and a stronger chance that if the company falls on hard times, it will have to reduce its dividend.

Peering into airlines
Below, I've compiled some of the major dividend-paying players in airlines (and a few smaller outfits), ranked according to their dividend yields:


Recent Yield

5-Year Avg. Annual Div. Growth Rate

Payout Ratio

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TAM 3.3% New dividend 24% Add
Copa Holdings (NYSE: CPA) 2.6% 53.9% 11% Add
SkyWest (Nasdaq: SKYW) 1.1% 7% 13% Add
Gol Linhas Aereas Inteligentes (NYSE: GOL) 0.8% 9% 21% Add
Southwest Airlines (NYSE: LUV) 0.2% 0% 3% Add
LAN Airlines (NYSE: LFL) 0.1% 14.3% 23% Add

Data: Motley Fool CAPS.

If you focus on dividend yield alone, you might end up with TAM, but it doesn't have enough of a track record to give us an idea of the dividend growth rate we might expect.

Instead, let's focus on the dividend growth rate first, where Copa Holdings and LAN Airlines lead the way. Copa's growth rate is steep, but it has a low enough payout ratio to sustain that growth for a while. LAN's yield is so low that it may take a long time to grow to a meaningful level.

You may notice, too, that most of the major U.S. players in the industry, such as United Continental Holdings (NYSE: UAL) and Delta Air Lines (NYSE: DAL),aren't on the list. That's because the airline business is a notoriously tough one and the companies often don't have reliable excess cash to pay out to shareholders. Note that among the few above that do offer dividends, they tend to be low yielders.

Just right
Among the companies above, Copa Holdings seems to offer the best combination of dividend traits, offering some income now and a good chance of strong dividend growth in the future. Of course, as with all stocks, you'll want to look into more than just a company's dividend situation before making a purchase decision.

Remember, too, that you can find even more compelling dividends in other industries, such as in packaged consumer goods or oil refining. Airlines may seem exciting, but most have long been saddled with problems.

Do your portfolio a favor. Don't ignore the growth you can gain from powerful dividend payers.

To get more ideas for great dividend-paying stocks, read about "13 High-Yielding Stocks to Buy Today."