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Continental Air Traffic Down

In signs of dramatic slowing in airline passenger traffic in February, Continental (CAL) said its unit revenue fell sharply, while Southwest (LUV - Get Report) cited "continued deterioration in revenue and booking trends."

Continental said its consolidated passenger revenue per available seat mile in February fell by 11.5% to 12.5%, while consolidated load factor fell by 3.5 points to 72.5%. Meanwhile, mainline PRASM fell between 9.5% and 10.5% from the same month a year earlier, while mainline load factor fell 3 points to 77.7%. International mainline load factor fell 2.9 points to 68.4%.

In January, Continental's consolidated PRASM fell 4.8%, while mainline PRASM fell 3.4%.

Meanwhile, Southwest said PRASM for the first two months was in the 2% range. "Business travel, in particular, has softened significantly, as measured by a decline in the percentage of full-fare traffic," the carrier said, noting that the "revenue outlook for the remainder of the year is more cautious."

Continental PRASM is closely watched because the carrier is one of the few to report the key metric each month. In a report on Tuesday, Avondale Partners analyst Bob McAdoo said Continental's February PRASM decline "signifies additional revenue weakness when compared to January's 3.4% estimated decline.

"The industry revenue outlook remains very uncertain, but lower oil prices thus far are offsetting recession-driven revenue weakness to some extent," McAdoo wrote. However, he said, he is reducing his estimate for first-uarter Continental earnings from break-ven to a loss of 82 cents, partially because Continental is holding out-of-the-money hedges.

Looking further ahead, McAdoo said, "March marks the beginning of stronger seasonal traffic trends for the major airlines" and Continental's fuel hedging is far less substantial in the second half.

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