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Continental Airlines posts 1Q loss

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[April 22, 2009]  DALLAS (AP) -- Continental Airlines Inc. said Wednesday it lost $136 million in the first quarter as traffic fell and business travelers saved money by moving from first-class to the coach cabin.

The Houston-based carrier joined a growing list of airlines that lost money in the first quarter, even though they were helped by a sharp drop in fuel prices from a year ago.

Continental lost $1.10 per share, compared with a year-ago loss of $82 million or 82 cents per share.

Excluding $4 million in charges related to aircraft, Continental said it would have lost $132 million, or $1.07 per share.

Analysts, who typically exclude one-time items from their calculations, expected a loss of $1.19 per share, according to a survey by Thomson Reuters.

Revenue fell to $3 billion from $3.57 billion a year ago, barely topping analysts' forecast of $2.98 billion. Sales fell across every region, with the sharpest declines in the U.S. and trans-Atlantic routes, with a more modest decline in Latin America and the Pacific.

Traffic in the first quarter fell 11.2 percent from a year ago, and planes were not as full even though Continental cut flights.

The Continental report followed a pattern seen at American Airlines parent AMR Corp. last week and again Tuesday at Delta Air Lines Inc. and United parent UAL Corp. All those carriers reported large first-quarter losses, but their results were not as dire as analysts had expected.

Airline stocks rallied Tuesday after the Delta and UAL results were posted, and they have doubled since hitting bottom in March. Still, the optimism on Wall Street was tempered by an uncertain outlook for travel in late spring and early summer, with a recession still hanging over the industry.

Jamie Baker, an analyst with JPMorgan, said in a note to clients that while revenue trends may have improved in April, that could give way to May disappointment. He said that could force airlines to more aggressively raise capital, presumably to weather the downturn.

Continental said it ended the first quarter with $2.65 billion in unrestricted cash, cash equivalents and short-term investments, virtually unchanged from the $2.64 billion it held Dec. 31.

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Continental, which operates its mainline brand plus regional affiliates, was helped that fuel prices fell sharply from a year ago. The company spent 41.8 percent less on fuel, down to $735 million from $1.26 billion in last year's first quarter.

The news was more grim on the revenue side, however. Continental blamed the 17 percent reduction on "significant declines" in passengers who bought higher-priced tickets, as many business travelers either stayed home or bought cheaper coach tickets.

Airlines have been cutting capacity -- Continental reduced flying by 7.2 percent in the quarter -- in hopes of regaining pricing power that they enjoyed last year. But that was before the worst of the recession, and airlines have been unable to raise fares despite recent attempts.

Continental is also equipping its international fleet with video-on-demand for TV shows and movies, and installing satellite TV on aircraft flown in the U.S. The live TV service will be free in first-class but cost $6 in coach.

Continental also plans to offer e-mail and text-messaging capability on flights but hasn't said what it would charge for the service.

[Associated Press; By DAVID KOENIG]

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.



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