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Continental Airlines posts wider loss in first quarter

HOUSTON (AP) _ Continental Airlines Inc., the nation's fifth biggest air carrier, reported Wednesday that first-quarter losses widened from a year ago due to high fuel costs and weak domestic yields.

The airline lost $184 million, or $2.77 per share, in the January-March period versus a loss of $124 million, or $1.90 per share, a year ago.

Excluding an $8 million gain related to the company's defined benefit pension plan, Continental lost $192 million, or $2.89 per share, in the latest quarter. Analysts surveyed by Thomson Financial were looking for the company to post a loss of $3.10 per share.

Total revenue was up 8.6 percent to $2.51 billion from $2.31 billion last year.

As Continental announced its 1st-quarter earnings, US Airways acknowledged it was in merger talks with American West.

``There have been some big changes in the last six months,'' said Continental Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Larry Kellner. ``Clearly if you look at the losses, you're going to see more of this.''

But Kellner said his airline would be ``cautious'' about considering such maneuvers itself.

Continental shares rose 16 cents to $12.21 in afternoon trading on the New York Stock Exchange. Its shares have traded in a range of $7.63 and $14.19 over the past 52 weeks.

Continental said high fuel prices and weak domestic yields continue to affect results despite cost reduction efforts and recent fare increases in some domestic markets. Mainline fuel costs for the quarter increased $137 million over the first quarter of 2004, primarily due to a 39.5 percent increase in fuel prices compared to the same period last year.

``While we lost money in the first quarter, I appreciate the commitment shown by my co-workers who took painful yet necessary action to quickly ratify new agreements,'' Kellner said. ``Even though we still have more work to do, we have made significant progress to move our company closer to profitability.''

Unions representing pilots, mechanics and dispatchers agreed to $418 million in concessions in March. That's shy of the $500 million Continental sought because the flight attendants rejected the pact. The $418 million includes wage and benefit cuts for non-union workers and management as well.

Because it had already shaved $1.1 billion in costs, Continental was the last of the major airlines to seek such concessions from workers.

Airline executives noted Wednesday that the airline also had to match Delta Air Lines Inc.'s price increase, which had an impact of $200 million a year.

``The competitive landscape will change over the next year,'' said Jim Compton, executive vice president for marketing. ``But thanks to our employees, we'll be around for the long haul.''

Kellner acknowledged that the airline didn't factor in today's fuel prices or the Delta fare structure change into the decision to target $500 million in cuts. But he said the airline ``has no intention of going back to employees'' for more concessions.

He said negotiations with the flight attendants would resume next week.

Passenger revenue totaled $2.3 billion, 8 percent higher than the same period in 2004, due to increased capacity and fares on international flights and more regional flying.

Consolidated revenue passenger miles increased 11.4 percent year-over-year on a capacity increase of 4 percent, which produced load factor of 76.8 percent, up 5.1 points over the same period in 2004.

In the first quarter of 2005, Continental incurred $265 million in fees and non-income related taxes charged on passenger tickets by various governmental entities, up 9.5 percent year-over-year.
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