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Fri, Apr 20, 2007

Is Southwest Airlines The Next Merger Target?

First Talk Of Assigned Seating, Now This...

Is Southwest Airlines poised to become the latest airline in play for a leveraged buyout? One analyst believes the time -- and Southwest -- is ripe for the picking.

Reuters reports CreditSights analyst Roger King projects a possible market value of $15 billion for the low-cost airline, which is currently the largest American airline by market share.

That price works out to about $20 per share, roughly $4.50 higher than its stock closed at Wednesday... in a scenario King calls  "a no-brainer in the current financial market.

"Airlines are in play all over the place," King adds. He cites Southwest's "a multiyear fuel hedge portfolio, billions in unencumbered aircraft values, a significant 737 order book, excellent long-term operational and financial trends, industry tailwinds and upside potential as temptations" as reasons the carrier is an attractive merger candidate.

Admittedly, King concedes, there's one fly in the ointment: such a buyout flies in the face of the airline's corporate culture.

"[Southwest Chairman] Herb Kelleher does not even have a grave to spin in yet," he said.

Southwest CEO Gary Kelly agrees. "I don't think it makes any sense to leverage $9 billion of additional debt on an airline like Southwest," he said in an interview Thursday on the CNBC financial news channel.

Still, stranger things have happened... after all, who would have thought some other airlines would ever post profits again?

FMI: www.southwest.com, www.creditsights.com

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