The quarterly loss was the first since the first quarter of 2011, when the Fort Smith, Ark.-based transportation holding company reported a $12.8 million net loss.
Arkansas Best is the parent of $1.7 billion less-than-truckload carrier ABF Freight System, which reported a $22 million operating loss for the first quarter.
The LTL carrier's daily tonnage dropped 10.6 percent year-over-year, while its revenue per hundredweight, or yield, a measure of pricing, rose 11.5 percent from a year ago.
Business is getting better, said Arkansas Best President and CEO Judy R. McReynolds. ABF tonnage increased in April from March at the best rate in 20 years, she said.
"The pricing measures we have taken have improved the incremental profitability of ABF's account base for future periods," McReynolds said in a statement.
Arkansas Best's revenue rose 1.4 percent from a year ago in the quarter to $440.9 million. ABF's revenue was essentially flat, rising 0.8 percent to $400.6 million.
In a statement, the company said a "sluggish and inconsistent" economy was a factor in its slip back into the red. The first quarter is also a weaker shipping period.
Arkansas Best had a $6.8 million net profit in 2011, while subsidiary ABF earned $4.7 million. ABF had a $2.5 million operating profit in the fourth quarter.