Two years after the arrival of Oscar Munoz as CEO, United Continental Holdings Inc. (UAL) remains a puzzle, as the carrier continues to trail its two principal rivals in margin and unit revenue performance.

United will report third-quarter results on Wednesday, Oct. 18, after the close the close of trading. Its earnings call will take place the next morning.

Analysts are not sure what to expect. In general their view is less than optimistic, but still leaves some room for share price appreciation, especially over the long term.

A week ago, United provided third-quarter unit revenue guidance that was better than expected. Guidance was toward a decline between negative 3.5% and negative 4% -- compared with earlier guidance toward a decline between negative 3% and negative 5%.

"Final 3Q guidance from United has been elevated relative to diminished expectations," wrote JPMorgan analyst Jamie Baker. 

A lingering fear is that as the airline industry reported second-quarter earnings in July, United disappointed: Its shares fell 6% on weak guidance. At the time, Baker issued a report challenging President Scott Kirby's contention that United has been closing its margin gap with Delta Air Lines Inc. (DAL) .

"Neither the rate nor magnitude of United relative margin performance has yet risen to the level of materiality, in our view," Baker wrote then.

Last week, Buckingham Research analyst Dan McKenzie issued a report that maintained a neutral rating and a $65 target price for United.

United shares closed Monday, Oct. 16, at $66.95, down 0.9%.

For now, ultra-low-cost carrier pricing "and UAL's aggressive domestic expansion keep us cautious on our revenue and stock outlook, hence our view that UAL's valuation multiple likely contracts further as consensus resets lower and UAL's financial underperformance vs. peers widens," McKenzie said.

Stifel analyst Joseph DeNardi has a buy rating and a $110 target price.

In a report issued Friday, Oct. 13, DeNardi said that he expects a 2.5% decline in fourth-quarter passenger revenue per available seat mile.

"Bottom line is there is a path to sequential improvement but there is more downside risk in upside potential," DeNardi wrote, noting that industry capacity expansion in the Pacific hurts United, which generates 12% of passenger revenue from the region compared with 7% for Delta.

"Since peaking in 2012, PRASM on the Pacific is down over 25%," he said. "The ramp-up of 787 service over the Pacific in 2018 (25% of Pacific ASMs in 2016, 30% in 2017 and {over} 40% in 2018) should help mitigate the pressure, but ultimately United needs the capacity environment to stabilize."

United will be helped by improving credit card economics, as mileage sales earnings increase, DeNardi said, but "United's ability to earn its fair share with Chase now seems like a longer-term process."

Wolfe Research analyst Hunter Keay rated United outperform and has an $80 price target.

Keay wrote last week that the carrier's new margin guidance was slightly better than he expected.

"We advise some near-term caution for 4Q17," Keay wrote. However, he said, "We expect UAL will show modest q/q improvement in PRASM growth."

Keay said Hurricane Harvey's impact on United's Houston hub "was a bit less worse than we think UAL expected.

"We like UAL in 2018 but we think there could be another brief period of consolidation for the stock before things get better - call it early next year," he said.

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This article is commentary by an independent contributor. At the time of publication, the author held no positions in the stocks mentioned.

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