Airlines Expect a Slow Recovery

HOUSTON ( TheStreet) -- Airlines see what Wall Street sees: The recovery, if it continues, will be a slow one.

While most carriers have shown or will show improvements in revenue-per-available-seat mile, Continental ( CAL)CEO Jeff Smisek reminded Thursday that those improvements result from comparisons with weak numbers compiled during the low point of the travel slowdown.

"Everyone should curb their RASM enthusiasm going into this quarter as we will again benefit from extremely weak comps," Smisek said during an earnings conference call. "We're a long way from being out of the woods."

As to the recovery, "I suspect it will be long and slow," Smisek said. "(But) a long and slow recovery is better than what we faced in 2008 and 2009."

Executive Vice President Jim Compton added: "We are seeing business traffic coming back slowly, but we are stressing the word 'slowly.'" In each month of the fourth quarter, he said, Continental saw a smaller sequential decline in its RASM.

Meanwhile, on Thursday Southwest ( LUV) CEO Gary Kelly said, "We're very cautious about the current state of the economy and the outlook for the year.

"Go back to the 1991 recession," Kelly said, during an earnings conference call. "It was years before business travel recovered," he said, noting that some business markets have not yet recovered from the 2001 recession. "There's no historical precedent for a sharp rebound in business travel," he said. "People change their habits. The sales guys who used to take one trip a month, they discover they only have to travel once a quarter."

The major network carriers are heavily dependent on business travelers, who pay more for seats, both because they historically book closer to their departures and because they are more likely to fly in a premium class. In general, these carriers tend to have a 50-50 mix between business and leisure fliers. By contrast, Southwest said that in its fourth quarter, about 18% of its passengers bought full fare tickets, down from 24% a year ago.

American ( AMR) CEO Gerard Arpey said Wednesday business travel is on the way back, but not necessarily quickly. "Historically in recessions, particularly in deep recessions, one of the quick things companies can do to cut costs is to cut business travel," Arpey said during American's earnings conference call. "It takes a while for corporations to realize there is a negative ultimate consequence to taking people off the road, that they were traveling as an integral part of doing business."

Still, CFO Tom Horton said American is "seeing signs that business travelers are getting back on the road." Corporate travel revenue was flat year over year, compared with a decline of 35% in May, he said.

As Kelly joked during the Southwest call: "Flat's the new up."

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

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