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AirTran Succored by Traffic Gains

AirTran Holdings (AAI), the parent of discount carrier AirTran Airways, pared its third-quarter loss as higher fares and strong passenger traffic offset a surging fuel bill.

The Orlando, Fla., company said Thursday that it lost $200,000 and broke even on a per-share basis. That compares with a loss of $9.8 million, or 11 cents a share, in the third quarter of 2004. The latest quarter's performance trounced the average analyst forecast for a loss of 8 cents a share, according to Thomson First Call.

Revenue was a record $374.6 million, up 52% from $245.6 million a year before.

Results were driven by several factors. AirTran flew 31% more seat miles, a measure of capacity. At the same time, passenger traffic, measured by revenue passenger miles, surged 43%, allowing the airline to fill more seats. The load factor, or average number of paid seats filled on its planes, jumped 6.2 percentage points to 76.3%. The company's average fare jumped 15% to $81.96.

Those factors combined to lift unit revenue, measured in revenue per available seat mile, or RASM, a robust 16.4% over last year.

"AirTran Airways set new records during the third quarter carrying 4.4 million customers and increasing our load factor over 6 points to 76.3%," said Joe Leonard, the company's CEO. "Coupled with capacity growth of 31.1%, our third-quarter revenue performance was truly gratifying, particularly given the impact of hurricanes Katrina and Rita."

Like the rest of the industry, AirTran continues to cope with stratospheric fuel prices. Highly refined jet fuel spiked in the wake of Hurricane Katrina and remains painfully high. AirTran said it paid $127.8 million to fill its planes in the latest quarter, almost double the $64.6 million it paid a year before.

Shares of AirTran were rising 19 cents to $14.17.

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