Invest in airports not airlines

Recent results from International Airlines Group shows how airlines can burn money. If you want to invest in air travel, you're best to stick with the airports.

If you want to make a small fortune farming, the saying goes, you need to start with a large one. Racehorses and football clubs can achieve the same result with ruthless efficiency, as Nathan Tinkler no doubt can testify. But if you want to incinerate really large amounts of money, you're probably best off with an airline.

Warren Buffett has gone blue in the face explaining this over the years – but it didn't stop him from doing exactly that (see our review Confessions of an aeroholic). There seems to be something about airlines – like racehorses, football and farming – that sucks people in regardless. But if you needed any further encouragement to steer clear of them, International Airlines Group, which reported a first-quarter operating loss of 278m euros on Friday, should provide it.

International Airlines Group is the result of the 2011 amalgamation of British Airways and the Spanish airline Iberia – presumably because British Airways didn’t have quite enough problems already. Well it certainly has plenty of them now and, as with most airlines, including our own Qantas Airways, they’re in the most obvious places.

Does the company make a healthy return on capital? Nope. Well it’s targeting a 12.0% post-tax return on capital in 2015, but we’ll have to wait and see about that. In the real world, it managed 1% in 2012, 5% in 2011 and 3% in 2010.

Does the company consistently generate decent amounts of free cash flow? Nope. The first-quarter result doesn’t give details on cash flow, but the operating loss doesn’t bode well, nor do the free cash outflows in 2012 and 2011.

Does it have huge wads of debt? Yes – net debt of about 1.7bn euros in fact, giving a net debt to equity ratio of about 42% at the end of March.

If you want to get exposure to the growth in air travel – and why wouldn’t you given that it tends to trot along at a premium to overall economic growth – we suggest you stick to the airports, which do make decent returns on capital and cash flow and can therefore sustain their often heavy debt loads. You can read our analyses on Sydney Airport, for example, over on Intelligent Investor Share Advisor.

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