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UAL, Hit by Fuel Expenses, Posts Loss

Updated from 11:52 a.m. EDT

United Airlines parent UAL (UAUA) beat analysts' third-quarter estimates and said it is well-positioned for the fourth quarter as a result of deep capacity cuts.

Excluding items, including noncash mark-to-market losses on fuel-hedging contracts, the carrier loss $252 million, or $1.99 a share. Analysts surveyed by Thomson Reuters had estimated a loss of $2.48. Revenue rose 0.7% to $5.6 billion and slightly exceeded the consensus projection.

When the special items were counted, UAL lost $779 million, or $6.13 a share. That included $519 million in mark-to-market losses as a result of the decline in oil prices during the quarter. The losses haven't been realized. Hedges that settled during the quarter produced a gain of $17 million. The contracts still outstanding have a fair value of negative $230 million.

During the quarter, fuel costs increased by $946 million over the same period a year earlier. But "in this environment of falling oil prices, we at United see the opportunity to return to profitability," said CEO Glenn Tilton, on an earnings conference call.

"We expect solid unit revenue growth in the fourth quarter, driven almost entirely by our capacity reductions," said Executive Vice President John Tague. Consolidated capacity will decline by 10.5% to 11.5%, while domestic mainline capacity will drop 14.5% to 15.5%.

United's cuts "represent the steepest cuts of any legacy operator," wrote JPMorgan analyst Jamie Baker, who said the guidance "suggests [an] outcome approaching breakeven."

While Tague acknowledged "a modest slowing in demand each successive week over the last two or three weeks," United does not foresee any reductions beyond those already announced. "We were planning for a weaker economy, albeit not this weak," Tague said. "We have not seen a level of decline that suggests our current capacity plans are not appropriate."

Despite the slowdown, Tilton called United's international route system "a resilient asset," and cited the example of McDonald's (MCD), a major corporate client in Chicago. McDonald's "is generating a significant amount of its work, of its value, overseas," he said. "In a global economy, the corporate customers that we have are going to have to pursue their growth opportunities in our overseas markets."

United is about to start Dulles to Dubai service, while eliminating the Los Angeles to Hong Kong service it began last year.

During the quarter, consolidated passenger revenue per available seat mile, excluding items, increased by 5.2%, as consolidated capacity fell by 3.6%. Mainline domestic passenger RASM, before items, grew by 6.5%, with capacity down by 6.2%. The trends improved in September, when mainline domestic passenger RASM rose 11%, as capacity fell by 10.8%.

Mainline cost per available seat mile, before fuel expenses and items, was flat at 7.71 cents despite a 4% decrease in capacity.

Shares of UAL were up 9% to $13.80. Elsewhere in the sector, AMR (AMR), Delta (DAL - Get Report), Northwest (NWA) and Continental (CAL - Get Report) all rose.

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