(Recasts, adds detail and analyst comment changes headline)
By Jeffrey Dastin
Jan 22 (Reuters) - United Continental Holdings Inc provided a bullish outlook for the coming year on Thursday in part because of lower fuel costs, sending shares up even though its fourth-quarter profit fell short of expectations.
The Chicago-based carrier forecast a pre-tax margin between 5.0 and 7.0 percent for the first quarter, a departure from previous years when winter storms and flight cancellations have eaten into their income.
"That would be starting off the year on a very, very strong note," said CRT Capital Group analyst Michael Derchin, adding that he could not recall when United made as much pre-tax profit in the first quarter.
The projections stemmed not only from seasonal capacity discipline but also from the plummeting cost of fuel, which typically amounts to a third or more of airlines' total operating expenses.
United projected a fuel cost between $1.96 and $2.01 per gallon for the first quarter, including settled hedges, which would represent hundreds of millions of dollars in savings compared to its fourth-quarter price of $2.83.
"They're going to start to see the full benefits of lower fuel," Derchin said.
United said Thursday that settling losing fuel hedges cost the airline $225 million in the fourth quarter. This, along with costs from a voluntary buyout for flight attendants and other special items, dragged down its fourth-quarter profit to $28 million.
Excluding these costs, the airline earned $461 million last quarter, or $1.20 per diluted share, which still fell short of analysts' average estimate of $1.22 per diluted share, according to Thomson Reuters I/B/E/S. The Wall Street estimates excluded certain special items.
The airline also reported that its revenue was $9.3 billion last quarter, a 0.2 percent decrease year-over-year. It said it returned about $320 million to shareholders in 2014.
Company shares rose 3.16 percent to trade at $71.40 pre-market. (Reporting by Jeffrey Dastin in New York; Editing by Jeffrey Benkoe and Chizu Nomiyama)