Sometimes spring just isn't all it's cracked up to be. Today, we welcomed it with our big Foul Ball! baseball special to mark the opening day of Major League Baseball. And what happened? We saw continuing snow flurries here in the mid-Atlantic. Mom, send extra wool socks -- it looks like winter just won't go away.

The markets shivered from the cold, too. The major indexes all finished the day in the red.

In today's Motley Fool Take:

Altria Up in Smoke

Shares of Altria Group(NYSE: MO), parent of Philip Morris USA, are trading at two-year lows today, as concerns about the tobacco company's legal woes mount. Never a stranger to courtroom action, some investors and credit rating agencies are wondering if Altria is in over its head this time.

The problem isn't so much the recent Illinois decision that slapped Philip Morris USA with a $10.1 billion verdict for deceiving smokers of "light" ciggies into thinking they contained less tar than normal cigarettes. It's the appeals bond attached to the decision that's giving the market pause.

In order to appeal the decision, Philip Morris USA would need to come up with a bond of $12 billion. Moody's has already downgraded Altria's existing debt on liquidity concerns, and both Fitch and Standard & Poor's are reviewing their ratings. The company faces an April 21 deadline for appealing, and that short time frame, coupled with the fact that it could be a real challenge for Altria to raise that kind of cash right now, contributed to the agencies' actions.

However, here's the catch: The appeals bond of $12 billion is unlikely to stand. The Illinois state legislature is working on a bill to cap bonds like this at $25 million. Altria could also ask the judge to lower the amount, or it could try to get a higher court to step in.

Why might the parties involved agree to lower the bond? Well, should they leave it as is, they'll be in jeopardy of not receiving their payouts from Philip Morris USA's settlement with the states. The company's slated to pay Illinois $9.1 billion over the next 25 years, and has a payment of $2.5 billion to the states due on April 15. If the states want their money -- and you can bet your bottom dollar they do -- it'll be in everyone's best interest to reduce the bond.

Standard & Poor's said that Philip Morris USA might have to file for bankruptcy if the appeal bond isn't lowered. That's an absolute worst-case scenario and, though it does sound scary, it's very unlikely to come to that. This isn't to say that there aren't legal uncertainties outstanding for Philip Morris USA and Altria, but the sky's not falling just yet.

Quote of Note

"My motto was always to keep swinging. Whether I was in a slump or feeling badly or having trouble off the field, the only thing to do was keep swinging." -- Hank Aaron

The Profitability of Information

A complete dichotomy between the airline industry's performance and the companies providing information and services about that industry proves the futurists of yore correct: We truly are an information economy.

Where many goods can no longer be produced in the United States profitably, the companies providing information about them continue to thrive.

This past November, we lamented an ill stroke of timing with our Stocks 2003 product. One of the featured companies, online travel service Expedia(NYSE: EXPE), had moved from (split adjusted) 20 to more than $37 near press time. We considered removing Expedia from the list, as it had surpassed what analyst Rex Moore considered fair value, but elected to leave it in, with a caveat attached.

Whaddaya know -- Expedia continued to bull higher to its current level just shy of $55 per stub, on the strength of a buyout offer by USA Interactive(Nasdaq: USAI). That's a gain of nearly 200% in six months.

While Expedia rocketed to new heights, the airlines themselves are dropping like flies, with AMR Corp.(NYSE: AMR) seemingly next in line to file for bankruptcy. When you think about it, the essence of Expedia's business is to make it more efficient and easier for consumers to buy services from the airlines. Its business is the information; the airlines provide the actual product -- getting you from Point A to Point B, whilst your bags go to Point Milwaukee (invalid if B = Milwaukee).

In the scheme of the total customer relationship, the component that Expedia provides is seemingly minor. But since the company deals in information, and not things like giant steel tubes filled with jet fuel, the cost to provide its component of the total transaction is also much smaller. Expedia generates substantial capital from operations. The airlines, on the whole, destroy capital.

In fact, Expedia's market cap of $6.4 billion equals that of all the publicly traded airlines in the U.S. combined, save Southwest Airlines(NYSE: LUV). That's right -- Delta(NYSE: DAL), Continental(NYSE: CAL), Northwest(Nasdaq: NWAC), Alaska Air(NYSE: ALK), Mesaba(Nasdaq: MAIR), even JetBlue(Nasdaq: JBLU). Throw 'em all together, and their combined market capitalization is no larger than that of a technology-driven travel agency.

Information wins.

"Yes," you say, "but you ignored Southwest!" Indeed, at $11 billion in market cap and unequalled profitability, the low-cost airline is the exception.

We suggest that "ignoring Southwest" is what got the big carriers into trouble in the first place.

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Flights for a Song

There's a new airline with JetBlue(Nasdaq: JBLU) in its crosshairs. Offering even more snazzy frills in the proven, low-cost arena, Delta's(NYSE: DAL) Song launches its online reservations site today.

The airline has the aura of a well-funded startup with hip intentions. From an MP3 audio library and ample legroom to premium add-ons such as pay-per-view movies and gourmet foodstuffs, you might be surprised that Delta's the one singing this new Song.

Yes, this is the same air carrier we suggested as a short two years ago. It was a good call, too, as the stock has shed 80% of its value since then in a sector where turbulent descents have become all too common.

Between bankruptcy filings from United (NYSE: UAL) and US Airways and the clock ticking for American Airlines' parent AMR(NYSE: AMR), you couldn't have done much worse than buying into the airlines. With more bulk than promise in their overhead bins, the major air carriers have lost billions, while a more nimble fleet has swooped down to fill empty concourses.

Southwest (NYSE: LUV) has ridden the low-cost trend for decades, with an emphasis on simplicity and a cost-efficient fleet of 737s. AirTran(NYSE: AAI) followed its lead. However, JetBlue rewrote the model when it produced low-cost jet service and decked planes with posh leather seats and 24 channels of DIRECTV programming.

Song aims straight at JetBlue, offering the same original destinations in Florida and the Northeast. In an aggressive move for Delta, it opted for three-dozen modified 757s that will fly 144 daily flights beginning in two weeks.

Good for Delta. The carrier lost $1.3 billion last year. While the company closed out the year with $2.6 billion in cash and short-term liquidity, its debt balance of $10.7 billion dwarfs that sum. So, even if Song proves a melodic marvel, it will take years of growth for it to make a dent in the company's bloated financials.

From self-service kiosks in the airport to automated bookings by phone or online, Delta's embracing the low-cost strategy in earnest. Couple that with open auditions at departure gates and interactive games for passengers, and this may become the most fun way to fly.

JetBlue better not get too cozy in its leather seats. Old, lethargic dogs are learning new tricks.

Discussion Board of the Day: Cheap Air Fares

What do you think of the low-cost short-haul carriers? Will the stocky airlines keep up? Want to know who has the cheapest flights to where you're heading? All this and more -- in the Cheap Air Fares discussion board. Only on

Quick Takes

Troubled drug maker ImClone Systems(Nasdaq: IMCL) will restate earnings at least as far back as 2001. At issue are tax liabilities associated with former CEO Samuel Waksal's stock options. The company, which saw its stock dip 10% today, also says it will have to delay filing some 2002 financial statements.

From the What-Took-You-So-Long Dept., HealthSouth fired Chairman and CEO Richard Scrushy today. Scrushy is accused by the Feds of committing massive accounting fraud by overstating earnings by some $1.4 billion over the past few years. The health-care provider also dumped auditor Ernst & Young.

There may be trouble brewing for Wachovia(NYSE: WB). The bank's 10-K filing reveals that the SEC is investigating stock purchases it and First Union made before and after their merger announcement in April 2001. Wachovia says the investigation does not involve any financial reporting or insider trading, and it believes it was in full compliance with the law.

In local news, UHF television station WHIK said it received a job application from a "P. Arnett." Channel 63 News Director Seth Charles said he was impressed with the man's qualifications, which included "the ability to appear on various state-controlled television programs."

And Finally...

Today on

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