Continental Earnings Sink 36 Percent

Continental Airlines Inc., the No. 5 U.S. airline, said on Monday its first-quarter earnings sank 36 percent as business travel purchases weakened amid the slowing economy.

The company said continued high prices also pressured its earnings, which came in at $9 million, or 16 cents a share, compared with $14 million, or 21 cents a share, a year earlier.

Analysts' expectations had ranged from a loss of 20 cents a share to a profit of 15 cents a share, with an average estimate of 5 cents, according to Thomson Financial/First Call.

Continental also announced that it priced a public offering of $709 million of pass-through certificates on April 4 at an average interest rate of 6.7 percent, including hedges. It will use the proceeds to finance the debt portion of the acquisition cost of 21 new Boeing Co.  aircraft scheduled to be delivered from October 2001 to March 2002.

During the quarter, Continental obtained a three-year $200 million credit facility to be used to finance purchase deposits on new Boeing aircraft scheduled for delivery over the next several years.

First-quarter revenue rose to $2.45 billion from $2.27 billion a year earlier. Passenger revenue rose 8 percent to $2.3 billion, with the strongest increases in the Latin American and Pacific markets.

Continental's cost per available seat mile in the first quarter was 1.9 percent higher than a year earlier, holding fuel rates constant, and 2.4 percent higher with the effect of fuel rate increases. A 3 percent increase in fuel prices and a 2 percent increase in available seat miles were partially offset by a 2 percent decrease in fuel consumption, Continental said.

Shares of Continental, which closed at $46.12 on Thursday, have outperformed the sagging S&P 500 index by about 33 percent since last April. The stock is up about 15 percent over the last 12 months.

U.S. markets were closed for the Good Friday holiday.

Under a stock repurchase program, Continental has repurchased 32 million shares of its common stock for $1.4 billion. As of March 31, the company had $106 million remaining in its stock repurchase program.