NEW YORK (AP) -- The weak economy could cause airlines to report a decline in a key revenue measure for the first time in nearly three years, Dahlman Rose & Co. said.
The airlines also are being squeezed by an inability to raise fares fast enough to offset rising jet fuel prices, the firm said Monday.
Airline pricing power is measured in a statistic called passenger revenue per available seat mile. The figure rises when airlines raise fares, sell more seats, or both. It falls if airlines must cut fares or there are more empty seats.
In the last few days, the major airlines reported that the statistic grew more slowly in July than it did earlier this year. At United, the world's biggest airline, the July figure was flat with a year earlier.
Dahlman Rose analyst Helane Becker said that August figures will be similar to July's and that September could be the first time since December 2009 that the statistic falls from the year before.
"We continue to remain concerned with September traffic," she said Monday in a note to clients. "We believe the economic slowdown will soon be reflected in airline traffic reports ... We have seen slowing business travel, which makes up the majority of the airlines' profits."
Becker said airlines have struggled to raise fares because of resistance among low-fare carriers. She added that the airlines have launched fall fare sales, which usually erode gains from price increases.
In the past month, analysts have grown more cautious about airline profits. According to FactSet, the consensus forecast for 2012 earnings per share has fallen 6 percent for United Continental Holdings Inc., 5 percent for Delta Air Lines Inc., US Airways Group Inc. and JetBlue Airways Corp., and 1 percent for Southwest Airlines Co.
In afternoon trading, shares of United were up 43 cents, or 2.4 percent, at $18.21; and Delta gained 13 cents to $9.19. Southwest was down 3 cents to $9.04; US Airways was off a penny to $10.06; and JetBlue was down 1.5 cents at $4.985.