American Airlines loses less than expected: $375M

American Airlines' parent company led off what's expected to be a dismal two weeks of quarterly earnings reports from U.S. carriers on Wednesday by posting a $375 million loss.

However, that was less than what analysts expected and offered a thin bit of evidence that the worst might be over for an industry suffering in the recession as fewer people fly.

AMR's amr loss of $1.35 a share beat the $1.68 loss predicted by analysts surveyed by Thomson Reuters. Tom Horton, AMR's chief financial officer, said the surprise was driven by an unexpected jump in demand in the last two weeks of March for tickets that require little advance purchase, the kind typically bought by business travelers.

AMR's stock closed Wednesday at $5.01 a share, up 79 cents, or nearly 19%.

CEO Gerard Arpey said the airline's outlook depended on "whether you're a glass half-full or half-empty guy. The fact that we're not seeing further deterioration (in reduced travel), you might look at that and be encouraged. On the other hand, we'd like to see business travel demand picking back up faster."

Arpey said his "gut" feeling is that businesses that have reduced travel spending "won't stay hunkered down because travel is integral to what they do."

Southwest, the industry's champion discounter, will report its first-quarter results today. Most other carriers report next week. Those results will be watched not only by airline industry insiders and investors but by economists. They want to see whether businesses are feeling good enough about the economy to begin putting employees on the road again.

JPMorgan analyst Jamie Baker cautioned that American provided no "meaningful" commentary on trends it is seeing through advance bookings for summer travel, and that's cause for concern.

The sharp downturn in airline revenue since fall — American's revenue was off 15% in the first quarter on a capacity reduction of 8% — has been driven primarily by businesses cutting travel spending.

In response to the low demand for travel, airlines have continued to cut capacity by reducing flights and grounding planes. They began cutting last summer when high oil prices gouged revenue.

American's demand, as measured in passenger miles flown, was down 12% in the first three months of this year compared with the first quarter of 2008.

It would have been worse if American hadn't cut ticket prices just as other U.S. carriers have. The sales are aimed at enticing price-conscious leisure travelers to fill seats that otherwise would have gone empty.

Analysts predict U.S. airlines will post first-quarter losses approaching $2 billion. Only Southwest is widely expected to report a small profit.