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."

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