Business Travel Drop Is United's Loss

Updated from 10:08 a.m. EDT

United ( UAUA) said revenue fell by 22% due to the global travel slump, but the company beat estimates as it focused on cost reduction.

Excluding items, the carrier lost $579 million or $4 a share. Analysts surveyed by Thomson Reuters had estimated a loss of $4.45. Revenue was $3.7 billion; analysts had estimated $3.6 billion.

Including mark-to-market hedge gains and other items, the company lost $382 million, or $2.64 a share. A year earlier, including items, the loss was $549 million or $4.55 a share.

On an earnings conference call, CEO Glenn Tilton said the carrier commands a premium price for its tickets but "with our greater exposure to premium and biz traffic both domestically and internationally, we have taken a disproportionate hit."

Added Executive Vice President John Tague: "The position we have earned in key business and economic markets such as China is the right place to be. However, for the first quarter, (it) has been challenging."

During the quarter, consolidated passenger revenue per available seat mile fell by 11.1%. Yield declined by 9.2%. Domestic PRASM fell by 10.1% on a 12.8% decline in capacity, while international PRASM fell by 15.4% on a 13.6% decline in capacity.

Unlike executives at other carriers, United executives were hesitant to discuss booking trends and their relationship to the economy. Reminded that other CEOs have said that bookings may have stabilized, Tilton said he generally agreed, but there is "no conclusive evidence to that effect. In some markets that may be true, but) it's difficult to call now."

On the cost side, mainline cost per available seat mile excluding fuel and other items fell by 1.1% despite a reduction in mainline capacity of 13.1%. "Our peers who are making capacity reductions have not been able to reduce costs at the rate we have," Mikells noted.

Meanwhile, comparable fuel costs declined by $729 million from the same period a year earlier.

United said it expects CASM excluding fuel and other items to increase by 1% to 2% during 2009. The carrier also reduced its planned non-aircraft capital expenditure plan for 2009 by $100 million, from $450 million to $350 million. Looking ahead, United said mainline capacity is expected to fall by 9% to 10% this year.

Airline shares, led by Delta ( DAL), rose on Thursday. The Amex Airline Index ( XAL) rose 10.3% to $18.97. Delta rose 19% to $8.11. United rose 13% to $6.63. American ( AMR)rose 14% to $5.39.

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