Traffic Up But Continental Still Posts 3Q Loss

Continental Airlines Inc. lost money in the third quarter as business travelers stayed home, causing a nosedive in airline revenue.

But not everything was bleak for Continental. Traffic picked up in September, even if it took cheap fares to get them on board.

And the financial results were much better than a year ago.

Houston-based Continental said it lost $18 million, or 14 cents per share.

In the same quarter last year, Continental lost $230 million as it struggled with soaring jet fuel prices.

Excluding charges for severance payments and write-downs, the company said it would have earned $2 million this summer, or 2 cents per share.

Analysts, who exclude such items from their forecasts, had predicted Continental would lose 6 cents per share.

Revenue plunged 20.2 percent, to $3.32 billion.

Continental blamed the revenue downturn on business travelers, who were flying less and buying cheaper coach tickets due to the recession.

Overall traffic declined less than 1 percent compared with the same period last year, and planes were more full than last year. But many of those passengers only responded to cheap fares, and they weren't buying high-priced tickets in first or business class.

The weak sales cut across all of Continental's markets, with trans-Atlantic business particularly sluggish.

Continental caught a break from falling jet fuel prices. The average price of a gallon of fuel fell 48.4 percent from a year ago, and with fewer flights, the airline burned 5.1 percent less fuel.

Continental said the percentage of seats booked over the next six weeks is flat to up 1 percentage point compared with last year for most of its routes, and up 4 to 5 points on trans-Atlantic routes. In other words, things aren't getting worse, but there's not much evidence of an impending rebound in travel either.

The airline expects fourth-quarter passenger-carrying capacity to be 0.8 percent below a year ago -- it's not cutting flights as often as it was earlier in the year.

President Jeff Smisek, who is set to become CEO in January, called the financial results disappointing, but said the airline had performed well. Nearly 83 percent of its flights arrived on time, and in one stretch the airline went 32 days without a flight cancellation.

Like other airlines, Continental also raised cash over the summer to prepare for the slower winter season, when carriers usually spend more money than they take in. Continental had $2.54 billion in unrestricted cash as of Sept. 30 after raising money by issuing new stock and mortgaging aircraft.

Next week, Continental plans to end its participation in a global airline group that includes Delta and will join United and Germany's Lufthansa in the Star Alliance. For Continental customers, the shift means learning a new lineup of airlines on which they can earn frequent-flier miles.

Continental shares nearly doubled during the third quarter, as airline stocks rallied on hopes that a travel recovery would soon begin. The shares closed Tuesday at $15.92, up 23 cents on the day.

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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