Sure, most airlines are soaring now, but twice-bankrupt Continental Airlines maneuvered an especially steep climb. Under CEO GORDON M. BETHUNE, 55, it dumped unprofitable routes, vastly improved service, and won back lucrative business travelers. Earnings, excluding charges, nearly doubled in 1996, to about $380 million. Talks with Delta stalled, but Continental now looks like a choice partner if consolidation hits the industry.

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