Suddenly, U.S. airlines and their stocks soar


NEW YORK -- Bulls woke yesterday to the sound of planes booming overhead and apparently liked what they heard.

Companies in the long-sputtering airline industry issued a number of announcements that spurred a broad rally in stocks and pushed the Dow Jones transportation average to a new high. The index increased 36.67 points, or 2.32 percent.

Most noteworthy was an unexpectedly large jump in domestic passenger traffic in March, which is seen by many as suggesting a healthy economic rebound and possible profits for the beleaguered industry this summer. Some airline executives said that bookings were strong.

So after five years of virtually no growth in the industry, "we now have a classic cyclical recovery in traffic," said Julius Maldutis, airline analyst at Salomon Bros.

He estimated March domestic traffic to be up 4.2 percent, and 6 percent when adjusted for the blizzard in the Northeast that forced the cancellation of thousands of flights.

The airlines still face basic problems to be addressed by a commission authorized yesterday by President Clinton. The panel is to develop a plan for revitalizing the industry.

Mr. Clinton said answers might "lie in a more aggressive trade policy, others may come from keeping the global marketplace freer from unfair competition, more may stem from the supporting role of aviation in preserving our national security."

Like the president's signature, many of yesterday's events were expected.

But the din of positive announcements seems to have impressed airline watchers. Most of the fragmented news items pointed to greater efficiency. "We're seeing the beginning of a lot of restructuring that will force inefficient capacity out," said Kevin Murphy, airline analyst at Morgan Stanley.

United Airlines said it had converted orders into options for 49 Boeing planes as part of a plan to slash capital spending by $5.5 billion through 1996. The move by United, the nation's second-largest carrier, pushed up the price of its stock by $9.875, to $137.

Southwest Airlines said it would begin service from San Jose, Calif., to Burbank, north of Los Angeles, and to Las Vegas. The move solidified the low-cost airline's strength in California, pushing up its stock price $2.75, to close at $38.875.

As Southwest moved into San Jose, American Airlines announced that it was dropping nearly half its flights from its money-losing hub operation there. Investors cheered the action and bid up the stock of the parent AMR Corp. by $3.25, to $69.

Shares of Delta Air Lines rose $3.50, to $57.

USAir Group was also swept up in the bullish airline market, rising $3.125, to a 52-week high of $24.75.

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