Though the slump in freight volume is expected to continue for the rest of the year, many transportation providers believe the toughest stretch may now be in the rearview mirror. And if the downturn removes weaker competitors from the playing field, some companies believe that may open up opportunities for growth and market share gains.

"I do not foresee a significant change in the current freight environment as we move through the third quarter. However, there has been a slight improvement in volume trends,” said Henry Gerkens, president & CEO of Landstar System in the carrier’s second quarter earnings report.

“In addition, some of the very difficult revenue comparisons experienced during the first half of 2009 begin to ease toward the end of the 2009 third quarter and into the 2009 fourth quarter,” he noted. “I believe the worst is over.”

That being said, however, Gerkens stressed that there continues to be some level of uncertainty in the marketplace. He noted Landstar’s revenue continued to be negatively impacted by the severe recession in the domestic and global economies during the second quarter, with earnings shrinking to $17.9 million on revenues of $491.2 million, compared to $29.8 million in earnings on revenues of $697.7 million in the same period last year.

"As was the case in the first quarter [of 2009], revenue declines were experienced in just about every sector, including revenue generated from the U.S. Department of Defense,” Gerkens added. “From a load volume perspective, the number of loads hauled in the second quarter [of 2009] decreased 16% compared to the second quarter [of 2008], [following] a 17% decline [in loads] in the first quarter [of 2009] compared to the first quarter [of 2008].”

“The economic environment continues to be difficult. Declines in both our domestic and international businesses appear to be stabilizing but volumes will remain significantly below last year’s levels,” said Kurt Kuehn, CFO for United Parcel Service, in that company’s second quarter earnings update.

UPS said its consolidated revenue in the second quarter declined to $10.8 billion compared to $13 billion in the same period last year, while consolidated volume totaled 914 million packages, down 4.7% from the second quarter in 2008. The company remained profitable, though – recording adjusted diluted earnings of 49 cents per share compared to 85 cents per share over the same period last year.

Average daily volume in UPS’s U.S. domestic package segment declined 4.6% in the second quarter, with air volume remaining flat while ground volume declined 5.4%. Yet UPS Freight posted quarter-over-quarter improvements in LTL tonnage and shipments, with only a 1.9% decline in shipments year-over-year that is in sharp contrast to the double-digit market decline, the company noted.

“Although declines in economic indicators are less dramatic than earlier in the year, questions remain as to when business activity will begin to strengthen,” said Kuehn. “The business environment in the third quarter should be similar to the second quarter.”

Some trucking carriers reported that they are managing to grow their business despite the ongoing economic downturn.

“Although the challenging freight environment continued in the second quarter, we did experience an increase in seasonal demand as the quarter progressed,” said Kevin Knight, chairman & CEO of Knight Transportation. “Our multiple-truckload service offerings continue to enable us to grow our market share and increase our loads hauled which were up 5.5%, year-over-year.”

As a result, Knight remained profitable in the second quarter, with net income at $12.6 million, down just 1% from the same period last year, while revenues decline to $144.3 million without the inclusion of fuel surcharges, down 6.8% from the second quarter of 2008.”

“We have not yet seen evidence that would suggest strong improvements in demand are on the horizon,” Knight said. “However, we have seen evidence that many truckload carriers are barely viable and are plagued with weak balance sheets, aging fleets and dramatically shrinking revenues. We expect the challenging truckload market to yield opportunities to continue to capture market share over time.”