DALLAS — Airports should experience less rating volatility over the near to intermediate terms as 90% of the rated entities have stable outlooks, Fitch Ratings said in an airport peer review study released Tuesday.

"Airports are in a more stable situation than they've been in since the start of the recession," said Seth Lehman, Fitch's chief analyst on the study. "That should mean a more normal growth pattern and fewer rating actions."

Fitch has posted eight positive rating changes or outlook revisions for U.S. airports and nine negative ones since the 2012 review report, Lehman said.

The most-populated rating level for airports is "A," which the report said indicated the sector's resilience "despite changeable conditions and random challenges derived from general economic factors and the airline industry."

The annual peer review is based on five key rating drivers used in airport determinations, including resiliency of passenger volumes, financial risks associated with the airport's debt structure, and the competitiveness of an airport's contracts with airlines and other commercial operators, Lehman said.

Fitch assessed the airports using the five attributes, showing them as "stronger," "midrange," or "weaker".

Of the 26 changes in attribute scores posted by Fitch in the latest review, he said, 14 were upward revisions and 12 were negative.

"The ups and downs for outlooks changes were pretty even," Lehman said. "The almost identical numbers for the attribute changes indicate that the ratings criteria are accurate and effective."

Nearly a third of the attribute adjustments were to airport credits in the BBB category, resulting in few overall stronger attribute scorings for those facilities. Only one adjustment was to an AA-rated airport, indicating greater resiliency for the stronger credits.

Most of the attribute adjustments were related to two major factors — infrastructure development and renewal, and debt service/counterparty risks.

"These two drivers, covering financial metrics and capital program management, have greater management decision-making influence than do other rating drivers," Fitch said.

Airports serving broad markets with a diversity of domestic and foreign flights tend to be the highest rated credits in the peer review. New York, Los Angeles, Boston, and Washington airports were touted as credits with the healthiest financial metrics.

The weakest-rated airports tend to be ones with very small markets or difficult debt burdens. These included airports in Augusta, Maine, Burlington, Vt., and Harrisburg, Pa.

Nearly a third of the assessment adjustments were to airport credits in the BBB category, resulting in few overall attribute scorings for those facilities. Only one adjustment was to an AA-rated airport, indicating greater resiliency for the stronger credits.

Most of the attribute adjustments were driven by two factors — infrastructure development and renewal, and debt service/counterparty risks. "These two drivers, covering financial metrics and capital program management, have greater management decision-making influence than do other rating drivers," the report said.

Review of airport debt structures, which considered the ratio of fixed- to variable-rate debt and amortization profile, found 83% of those with Fitch ratings fit into the stronger category. This is due to "the high level of fixed-rate debt and limited market risk currently in the industry" the report said.

Airports in the midrange category have variable-rate debt exposure of 15% to 30%. The report cited Denver International Airport as an example of a midrange entity with a portfolio consisting of 77% fixed rate debt and 23% variable rate debt.

A limited number of Fitch-rated airports were assigned a weaker assessment based on their debt structure attribute.

The overall strong debt assessment driver is seen as unlikely to change "given the expectation that most airports are expected to maintain their conservative debt structures in place" the report said.

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