Airline Stocks Lose Altitude

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Shares of the major U.S. airlines sank on Wednesday, led by steep declines in Continental Airlines Inc. and US Airways Group Inc., as the sector pulled back from recent oil-driven gains.

Contributing to losses, which outpaced ones in the broader market, were the unexpected resignation of the US Airways' chief executive on Tuesday and an announcement of a public share offering by Continental that will add 12 percent more stock.

"The airlines are definitely following oil prices and the general market," said Ray Neidl, airlines analyst at ABN Amro, adding that "maybe all the positives from oil price decreases are finished for now."

Plummeting oil prices were one factor that helped push airline shares higher in recent weeks as the major carriers continued to struggle with a sharp drop in passenger traffic following the attacks on the United States in September.

The busy Thanksgiving holiday travel period was relatively free of major hassles for the airlines, though most were running much smaller schedules than a year ago. Airlines are due to release November traffic numbers next week.

"Traffic numbers will be coming out next week and if there are no surprises there, then I think the trend will continue with the airline sector pulling back going into December," Neidl said.

Shares of Houston-based Continental fell $2.40, or 9.96 percent, to $21.70 on Wednesday after the nation's fifth largest airline priced a public offering of 6.74 million of Class B common shares at $22.50 each and said it intends to use the net proceeds for general corporate purposes.

The Standard & Poor's 500 index closed down 1.83 percent and Dow Jones industrial average closed down 1.63 percent.

Shares of US Airways fell $1.58, or 19.75 percent, to $6.42, one day after the sixth-largest U.S. airline said Chairman Stephen Wolf will replace Chief Executive Rakesh Gangwal, who resigned unexpectedly.

"Their stock price has been moving up from a little base, but with the market being off, it is no surprise that is off," Neidl said.

US Airways shares had rallied about 92 percent in the previous two weeks.

Shares of AMR Corp., parent of No. 1 U.S. airline American Airlines, fell 68 cents, or 3.22 percent, to $20.42 and shares of United Airlines parent UAL Corp. fell 84 cents, or 4.94 percent, to $16.16.