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The largest U.S. airline – United Continental Holdings Inc. (UAL - Analyst Report) – reported better-than-expected results in second quarter 2013. Consistent progress in customer service, enhancement of operations and aggressive promotional activities aided the company’s performance.

The company posted earnings of $1.35 per share, a penny ahead of the Zacks Consensus Estimate. Comparing year over year, the results declined from $1.41 per share.

Quarterly total revenue improved 0.6% year over year to $10.0 billion. The result surpassed the Zacks Consensus Estimate of $9.9 billion. On an annualized basis, Other revenues increased 21.1%, while Passenger and Cargo revenues decreased 1.1% and 10.9%, respectively.

Operating Statistics

Airlines traffic, measured in revenue passenger miles, dropped 1.7% year over year to 53.6 billion. Capacity (or available seat miles) slid 2.1% year over year to 63.3 billion, while load factor (percentage of seats filled with passengers) improved 40 basis points year over year to 84.7%.

Consolidated passenger revenue per available seat miles (PRASM or unit revenue) increased 1.0% year over year, supported by 6.1% growth in Atlantic PRASM, partially offset by a decrease of 3.4% in Pacific PRASM.

Operating Expenses

Total operating expenses, excluding special items, increased 0.2% year over year to $9.2 billion in the reported quarter. Consolidated unit cost or cost per available seat mile (CASM), excluding third-party business expense and special items, crept up 4.5% year over year.

Liquidity

At the end of the second quarter, the company had $7.0 billion in unrestricted liquidity, of which $1 billion was in revolving credit facilities. In the quarter, United Continental generated operating cash flow of approximately $1.1 billion and spent approximately $549 million.

Other Airline Stocks

Southwest Airlines Co. (LUV - Analyst Report) reported second quarter 2013 adjusted earnings of 38 cents per share, a penny short the Zacks Consensus Estimate. The results, however, improved from the prior-year quarter adjusted earnings of 36 cents per share on fleet re-designing, expansion of network and less fuel expense.

Our Take

United Continental – which recently entered into a deal with The Boeing Company (BA - Analyst Report) to buy 10 of its 787-10 aircraft – currently holds a Zacks Rank #3, implying a Hold rating.

We believe that the company is poised for growth in the coming quarters from its renewed and upgraded jets, expansion of network, customer-friendly services and promotional activities. United has agreed to buy 30 Embraer SA’s (ERJ - Analyst Report) 175 regional jets. The deal, estimated at about $4 billion, also has the option of 40 additional purchases.

However, we remain concerned about fluctuating fuel prices, competitive threats, changing passenger and cargo demand, technological mishaps and a sluggish global economy.
 

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