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United Continental fourth-quarter profit, revenue top estimates

A worker from United attends to some customers during their check in process at Newark International airport in New Jersey , November 15, 2012. REUTERS/Eduardo Munoz

CHICAGO (Reuters) - United Continental Holdings Inc (UAL) on Thursday reported a quarterly profit that easily topped Wall Street expectations, helped by an increase in passenger travel, higher ticket prices and lower fuel costs.

The parent of United Airlines, said fourth-quarter unit revenue, which measures passenger revenue per available seat mile, increased 3.2 percent from last year, while a measure of passenger miles traveled also rose 2.7 percent.

United Continental, the No. 2 U.S. airline after the newly formed American Airlines Group Inc (AAL.O), had been underperforming the industry in key metrics like unit revenue for about a year.

But earlier this month, the carrier reported unit revenue for December rose 12.5 percent from a year earlier as the U.S. Thanksgiving holiday shifted some holiday traffic into December. That sent United stock to its highest level since late 2007.

For the fourth quarter, the company earned $298 million or 78 cents per share, compared with a loss of $190 million, or 58 cents, last year. Taking into account merger-related charges, the company earned $140 million, or 37 cents per diluted share.

Revenue for the Chicago-based United Continental rose 7 percent to $9.3 billion.

Analysts expected the airline to earn 65 cents a share, on revenue of $9.28 billion, according to Thomson Reuters I/B/E/S.

Shares of the company fell to $48.74 in premarket trading after closing at $49.18 Wednesday on the New York Stock Exchange.

(Reporting by Nivedita Bhattacharjee in Chicago; Editing by Jeffrey Benkoe)