Sorry if I disappoint you, but it's not airline stocks that I think are screaming values. It's the services the airlines provide that are ridiculously cheap.
If you haven't heard, the airline industry is in the pits. The price of fuel, pension costs, aging fleets, you name it ... the airlines basically have nothing going in their favor. Mind you, this is nothing new: I always enjoyed Richard Branson's brutal honesty when asked how to become a millionaire: "There's really nothing to it," he said. "Start as a billionaire, and then buy an airline." Caveat emptor, I guess.
One thing's certain: Not to state the obvious, but the airlines' revenues aren't enough to cover their towering costs. Save for a return to dirt-cheap oil (fat chance), there's only one way to get the industry back on a stable track: Raise ticket prices.
And just how high can those fares rise? Some say they can't go much higher because the industry is so fiercely competitive -- there's just no room for pricing power. That's true, but it doesn't mean prices can't rise -- it just means that swarms of carriers will be forced out of business until competition mellows out. There's no way around it: Prices will rise, and they'll rise a lot.
How do I know? Because measured against the alternatives, air travel is so insanely cheap it almost defies logic.
You are now free to move about the alternatives
Take a simple example: the cost of flying from Los Angeles to New York. Of course, the cost varies by day and time, but the last time I checked, it appeared that nonstop service from LAX to JFK would set you back in the neighborhood of $350, including booking fees and taxes. Throw in the cost of checking your second bag and a cab ride to the airport, and we'll call it $400.
The best way to wrap your head around how much the airlines could charge is by comparing the costs to the closest alternatives. Unless you're this guy, that means driving, taking a bus, or riding a train. Mapquest tells me that the trip from L.A. to New York by car will take 42 hours of driving time and cover 2,788 miles. Assuming gas costs $4 a gallon and your car gets 25 MPG, fuel alone will set you back $445. That's before you get into hotel and food costs. Assuming your time is worth anything to you, driving clearly isn't an option for the solo traveler. From this point of view, it's clear that airfares could run up in a huge way and still be a screaming value.
How about other methods? On Amtrak, the trip could set you back as little as a couple of hundred backs ... and take you two and a half days to get there. Similar deal on Greyhound. And those pesky airline baggage fees that are taking so much flak? It'd cost you more than $300 to ship a 50-pound bag overnight through a courier. Take your pick.
Get the point? Good. Now stop complaining.
The bottom line is that air travel should be more expensive than it is today. Without higher fares, the airlines will go bankrupt, and in the wake of higher fares, those who have to travel don't have much of a choice. When an industry is losing billions of dollars and the next best alternative is unreasonable, customers don't have bargaining power on their side.
Prices haven't gone up dramatically yet because -- wonder of all wonders -- airlines are still scraping together enough cash to stay in business and, hence, remain competitive. Once that situation ends, and it will, the survivors will start raising fares en masse. They have to. The industry is expected to lose $6.1 billion this year alone. There's no reason to think the survivors can't raise prices to the point at which travel is competitive with the alternatives -- or at least raise them to a competitive profitable rate. In the long run, that's how efficient markets work. No industry can continue indefinitely on negative cash flow.
Air travel 2.0
Out of the larger carriers -- America's AMR
Yes, air travel is a screaming bargain now. Don't expect that to last much longer. Am I wrong? Let me have it in the comment section below.
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Fool contributor Morgan Housel doesn't own shares in any of the companies mentioned in this article. He appreciates your questions, comments, and complaints. The Fool's disclosure policy always flies first class.