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CHICAGO (

TheStreet

) -- When it comes to business traffic,

United

(UAUA)

says it is improving and

Southwest

(LUV) - Get Southwest Airlines Co. Report

says it is not.

That begs the question, who knows business traffic better?

"We've seen business traffic pick up considerably (following) the pressure we saw in the second quarter," said United CFO Kathryn Mikells, on an earnings conference call. "The declines in corporate trends have abated."

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As far as the difference with Southwest's view, Mikells said: "Compare the stark contrast between these two carriers. We are heavily focused on business travelers (and) I don't think it would be unusual that you would see" a difference in perception by a low-cost carrier.

Last week, on the Southwest earnings call, CEO Gary Kelly declared, "We're not counting on a return of the business traveler anytime soon," adding, "There's certainly been a sharp drop in business travel and we're expecting that's going to continue."

But United President John Tague said United sees business and premium traffic coming off lows. "We are seeing progress, the indication that this has bottomed," he said. "Not only are we seeing progress since the spring, we're sort of seeing it sequentially month after month." United said. During the quarter, passenger revenue per available seat mile fell by 14.7%, representing a 2.5-point improvement over the 17.2% decline in the second quarter.

"The next big signal we're really looking for is how do corporate travel budgets get reset for 2010," Tague said. "If we don't see a continued steep improvement as we move through the next quarter or two, then we're going to have to reassess."

However, CEO Glenn Tilton noted that

Caterpillar

(CAT) - Get Caterpillar Inc. Report

reported earnings on Tuesday and saw growth in China, a market where United is the biggest U.S. player. "In many ways, as (Caterpillar) goes, we go," Tilton said. "We're really a mirror of their confidence. When they start telling their analysts on their call that they see an economic recovery, and they did this morning, that obviously has implications for us."

United and Southwest are the only two carriers to have reported third-quarter results. One thing they have in common is that both beat Wall Street estimates. Excluding items, United lost 43 cents a share; analysts surveyed by Thomson Reuters had estimated a loss of 94 cents. Southwest earned three cents, besting estimates of two cents. That is probably a good sign for the remaining carriers, which will report Wednesday and Thursday.

-- Written by Ted Reed in Charlotte, N.C.

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