Higher oil prices are forcing most airline stocks down, and they masked a strong February financial performance by Continental Airlines ( CAL). Oil prices hit a three-week high Thursday, topping $63 a barrel in New York trading, and continued to climb Friday morning. Meanwhile, Continental said its consolidated February revenue per available seat mile increased 8% to 9% from the same month a year earlier, including a 6% to 7% mainline increase. Continental also reported a record consolidated February load factor of 76%, including a domestic mainline load factor of 81%. Because Continental is one of the few airlines to report monthly RASM results, its numbers are considered an important gauge of industry performance. Analysts applauded Continental's results and said they reflected a continuation of the trend toward rising ticket prices that began in April 2005. "The February RASM increases are very impressive and give indications that, through yield management, airlines continue to increase their unit revenue," said Ray Niedl of Calyon Securities, who added that he estimates domestic ticket prices are up 8% year to date. JP Morgan analyst Jamie Baker said all airlines will likely produce strong revenue per available seat mile results for February. He said Delta Airlines ( DALRQ), which reduced its flying in the East, could see the industry's strongest RASM gains after eliminating weaker routes. Whether carriers' costs increased as well is unclear. Baker suggested that a February blizzard may have hurt costs per available seat mile for all airlines operating in the Northeast. In recent years, Continental's RASM performance has been among the industry's strongest. At the JP Morgan airlines conference last week, Continental CFO Jeff Misner said the company's full-year 2005 RASM was 9.32 cents. That was second among seven comparable airlines, when adjusted to Continental's average stage length of 1,609 miles.
UAL ( UAUA) unit United Airlines was first, at 9.48 cents. Misner said Continental is more focused on margin, or the spread between revenue per available seat mile and costs per available seat mile. In that ranking, Continental was also second, with a fourth-quarter margin of 9.2%. Southwest Airlines ( LUV) was first, but Misner said that without fuel-price hedging, Southwest would have fallen squarely in the middle of the pack with a 5.1% margin. "Effectively, they're in the boat with the rest of the airlines," Misner said. "We suggest that they discontinue going to airline conferences and go to financial trading conferences. They're really running a great derivatives trading company right now." Shares of Continental were off 23 cents at $23.62.