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Will Aircraft Leasing Companies Hit Turbulence?


Fate too closely tied to customer base.


A recent Forbes article about aircraft leasing companies names some publically traded names that at first blush look cheap -- Genesis Lease (GLS), AerCap (AER) and Aircastle (AYR) -- but that cheapness may be a bit deceiving.

Plane leasing seems like a great business. Despite headwinds for airlines -- a slowdown in the U.S and global economy and oil prices reaching all time highs -- demand for planes is still very strong.

But the more I think about it, the more I realize this business can't escape the same fate as its airline customers. I could be wrong, but the industry doesn't really have a sustainable competitive advantage.

It's basically just an arbitrage model: As lessors, they need to be able to borrow at a low rate and lease planes to airlines at a rate greater or equal to what they could borrow. For their part, airlines get to keep planes off the balance sheet and show high return on capital, but may try to renege on the lease when times get tough.

This is where things get dicey. A global slowdown coupled with a recession will do what it does every time: Send airlines into a place they visit frequently - bankruptcy.

Airlines will renege on the leases and the aircraft leasing companies will get their planes back. But unless they decided to start flying those planes themselves, demand won't be there.

Planes will make their usual pilgrimage to the desert.

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