ATLANTA ( TheStreet) -- Delta ( DAL) reported a slight third-quarter profit excluding items, besting estimates, even as the global recession reduced the demand for travel.

Excluding special items, Delta earned $51 million, or 6 cents a share. Analysts surveyed by Thomson Reuters had estimated a loss of 5 cents a share. Revenue fell 21% to $7.6 billion, in line with estimates.

The net loss, including $161 million in merger-related charges and $51 million related to severance, was $161 million, or 19 cents a share.

"The global recession drove a significant revenue decline for the quarter, but we see improving trends in load factors, yield and business traffic," said President Ed Bastian, in a prepared statement.

Added CEO Richard Anderson: "While we now see encouraging revenue and booking trends, we remain cautious in these early stages of an uncertain recovery."

The carrier said it has achieved $500 million in merger benefits in the first three quarters, reaching its 2009 target ahead of plan, and expects to generate $700 million in merger synergies for the full year. The carrier said 2010 system capacity would decline by 3%.

Passenger revenue per available seat mile declined 18%, driven by a 19% decline in yield. The biggest PRASM decline was 26% in the Pacific. Cargo revenue declined 51% as Delta moved to discontinue freighter flying.

On the cost side, mainline cost per available seat mile, excluding fuel and special items, increased by 2% to 7.82 cents. "Despite our significant capacity reductions, Delta successfully mitigated unit cost pressures through improved productivity, strong cost discipline and accelerating our merger synergies," said Chief Financial Officer Hank Halter.

Delta ended the quarter with $5.8 billion in unrestricted liquidity, including $5.5 billion in cash, cash equivalents and short-term investments. The company said it expects a break-even operating margin in the fourth quarter.

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

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