Alaska Air Group has emerged as the early bright during the aviation industry’s quarterly earnings season, surprising analysts with a soaring profit that gave it its best-ever result for the quarter.

Alaska Air — parent company of Alaska Airlines and regional unit Horizon Air — reported a $74.2 million profit, or $2.01 per share. The Seattle Timessays “excluding special one-time gains, (Alaska Air) earned $29.5 million, or 80 cents a share, compared with $13.1 million, or 36 cents a share, in the first quarter of 2010.” That topped analysts forecast profit of 71 cents a share.

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The News Tribune of Tacoma writes “the relatively robust earnings were particularly noteworthy coming in the airline’s typically weak first quarter, when travel activity is low to many of its tourist destinations. The earnings record came at a time when other airlines were reporting thin or nonexistent earnings because of rising fuel prices and lax demand.”

“We are pleased to report a record first quarter profit. This quarter’s results are due to strong passenger demand leading to a 16%, or $136 million, improvement in revenue. This profit is especially gratifying given the significant increase in fuel costs,” Alaska Air CEO Bill Ayer says in a statement.

Alaska Air says its passenger traffic has increased 16% on a capacity increase of 12%. Load factor, an industry measure indicating the percentage of available seats filled, rose to 82.3% from 79.5%.

Buoyed by its strong performance, Alaska Air says it plans to increase its year-over-year capacity by 8%-9%. Dow Jones Newswires says “a key focus of Alaska Air’s growth plan for this year is its flights to Hawaii from the U.S. West Coast, though competition has been heating up.”

The company has been adding flights from several West Coast cities to numerous destinations in both Hawaii and Mexico. The News Tribune says that strategy has helped Alaska Air fill “a void left in those markets by the bankruptcy of Mexicana Airlines and the disappearance from the Hawaii market by ATA and Aloha Airlines.”

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