Overall, United has fallen back from the time it was the world's largest carrier. Between 2000 and 2008, the fleet shrank by a third, the workforce shrank by half and the passenger count shrank by 38%. United's competitors also shrunk, as they too turned over flying to lower-cost regional partners, but they also expanded through acquisitions. While reducing unprofitable flying has boosted results, it has chipped away at employee morale.

Derchin said Wall Street has been giving United a second look. "Wall Street felt that in bankruptcy United could have gotten more cost out, but since they exited (in 2006) they've continued the process," he said. "I think in recent years they've felt United was doing a good job, given the tough hand they've been dealt."

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

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