Fuel leads to $80 million loss at Continental

Continental Airlines Inc. slid to a first-quarter loss as fuel spending soared 53 percent, and Southwest Airlines Co. profit fell by two-thirds. Both airlines say they'll slow their growth plans, and they're increasing fares. Dallas-based Southwest reported Thursday that its earnings tumbled to $34 million, or 5 cents per share, in the January-March period, from $93 million, or 12 cents per share, a year earlier. At Houston-based Continental, fuel costs rose by $364 million from last year, pushing it to a loss of $80 million, or 81 cents per share. A year ago, it earned $22 million, or 21 cents per share.

United-Continental merger talk grows

Since Monday's news about Northwest Airlines' merger with Delta, speculation has increased about a combination of Continental Airlines and United Airlines. Continental took a small but public step in that direction Thursday by buying out Northwest's right to veto a deal involving Continental. Continental Chief Executive Lawrence Kellner said he'd prefer for the airline to remain independent, but the Delta announcement changed things.

Merrill loses $2 billion, will cut 3,000 jobs

Merrill Lynch & Co., the world's largest brokerage, Thursday said it would cut another 3,000 jobs after more than $6.5 billion of fresh write-downs pushed it to a loss for the first quarter. John Thain, hired as chief executive four months ago, cautioned that things were unlikely to improve in the next couple of quarters. The New York-based brokerage lost $2.14 billion, or $2.19 per share, after paying preferred dividends, in the first quarter. In the year-ago period it earned $2.11 billion, or $2.26 per share.

Index of leading economic indicators rises

A private business group said its index of leading economic indicators rose Thursday, reversing five months of decline. But the indicators are down significantly from a year ago. The Conference Board said its forecast of future economic activity rose 0.1 percent in March, after a 0.3 percent decline in February. Economists had expected a 0.2 percent March increase. The index forecasts economic activity in the next three to six months based on 10 components, including stock prices, building permits and initial claims for unemployment benefits.