JetBlue Airways

(JBLU) - Get Report

posted a profit that exceeded Wall Street expectations, bucking the airline industry's trend toward steep losses.

The low-cost carrier said Thursday that it racked up first-quarter earnings of $17.6 million, or 25 cents a share, which topped the 22 cents expected by Wall Street analysts. That's also 35% annual earnings growth, besting last year's $13 million, and about $7 million less than what

Southwest Airlines

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earned in the first quarter.

"We're proud of our continued solid performance this quarter in the midst of a very difficult operating environment," said Chief Executive David Neeleman, in a statement. "In three short years we've achieved nine quarters of profitability, including five consecutive quarters of double-digit operating margins."

The company had $217.1 million in revenue, up 63% over $133.4 million in the year-earlier quarter. JetBlue's operating costs came in at $182.7 million, up 66% over the year-ago level, thanks in part to a 177% jump in fuel costs and a 70% increase in labor costs.

Before taxes and interest are factored in, JetBlue had an operating margin of 15.9% in the first-quarter, slightly weaker than the year-ago 17.5%, but nonetheless impressive in an industry with few profits, let alone profit margins.

JetBlue's cultish popularity continues to buck the overall downturn in travel. In the first quarter, the company filled 81.4% of its seats, even while increasing the number of available seat miles by 80.7% to 2.9 billion. More than 2 million people flew JetBlue during the quarter, which, unlike 2002's quarter, didn't include the Passover and Easter holidays. That's a 70% gain.

The solid results have emboldened JetBlue management to buck another industry trend and actually buy additional planes instead of parking them in the Arizona desert. The company said it has placed an order for 65 of Airbus' A320 airplanes, which are smaller jets that hold 180 people, with an option to buy an additional 50 planes down the road.

Shares of the New York-based carrier were up 1.7% at $30.68 in early morning trading on Thursday.