Updated from 9:19 a.m. ESTContinental Airlines ( CAL) reported a small loss in the fourth quarter despite rapid growth on its international routes. The Houston-based carrier said it lost $4 million, or 4 cents a share, excluding a special charge of $22 million related to lump-sum payments to retiring pilots. Including the charge, the airline lost $26 million, or 29 cents a share. Revenue was $3.16 billion, up 11% from the same quarter last year. Analysts surveyed by Thomson Financial had expected a loss of 15 cents a share on revenue of $3.16 billion. During the quarter, consolidated revenue per available seat mile grew 4.3% due to increased yield and a record load factor of 79.8%. Mainline RASM was up 5.5%. RASM advanced by 14.4% on Latin routes, 11.2% on Pacific routes and 3.5% on domestic routes. Looking forward, Continental said it would slow consolidated 2007 capacity growth to about 4%, down from around 9% last year. On a conference call, CEO Larry Kellner said 9% was "more than we wanted to grow. We did that primarily domestically, to make sure we didn't lose share in Newark." Still, Continental, which will take delivery of 65 airplanes over the next three years, plans to continue with international growth. "The great thing about having a New York hub is that there are a lot of places that want service," Kellner said.
The carrier faces continuing revenue and cost pressures. In the fourth quarter, expansion by JetBlue ( JBLU) at Kennedy International Airport forced fares lower at LaGuardia Airport, which in turn drove fares down at Newark. During the first quarter, cost per available seat mile, holding fuel prices constant, will grow 2.5% because of higher expenses for maintenance and employee incentive payments, including a planned $111 million payout on Valentine's Day. For the full year, Continental reported net income of $343 million, or $3.30 a share, compared with a loss of $68 million in 2005. Stripping out items, net income was $304 million, or $2.95 a share, compared with the previous year's loss of $205 million.