Wall Street hasn’t been ecstatic about airlines earnings so far this cycle. Delta Air Lines missed analysts’ consensus, Southwest Airlines was about on target, AMR was a little above consensus.

Maybe the market was just waiting for Alaska Air Group.

Alaska Air Group reported really strong earnings Tuesday, providing a true earnings surprise for Wall Street.

The parent of Alaska Airlines and Horizon Air earned $1.28 a share in fourth quarter 2010, compared to the consensus estimate of $1.02.

“Alaska Air group (ALK) knocked the cover off of the ball … exceeding all estimates by a wide margin,” analyst Ray Neidl with the Maxim Group wrote in a report. “2010 was a record year for the company in earnings and 2011 we expect will exceed that milestone.”

Alaska’s net income for the year totaled $251.1 million, more than double the $121.6 million it earned in 2009. For the fourth quarter, it earned $64.8 million, up sharply from $24.1 million Q4 2009.

It accomplished these earnings feats despite a 5.6 increase in Alaska Airlines’ capacity in 2010. Growth is a no-no these days in the airline industry. Airlines are supposed to show “restraint,” to use the commonly used term.

Only JetBlue Airways, up 6.7 percent, grew more than Alaska. Excluding those two, the industry’s other big carriers – Delta, American, Southwest, United Continental, US Airways and AirTran – grew less than 1 percent as a group.

“If this type of performance does not justify modest growth, we don’t know what does,” analyst Hunter Keay with Stifel Nicolaus wrote after the earnings came out.

“We believe ALK should be viewed through a different lens than most of its peers that tend to grow for the wrong reasons such as CASM reduction, mollification of labor, or market share gains,” he added. “While 2011 capacity guidance of ~7% is unsettling at first glance, we extend the benefit of the doubt until results dictate a different approach.”

Alaska Air shares closed up 37 cents to $61.13 in Tuesday trading on the New York Stock Exchange, on a day when most larger competitors showed a decline.

On Wednesday, we’ve got earnings coming up from United Continental Holdings and US Airways Group. On Thursday, JetBlue Airways reports. On Friday, AirTran Holdings releases its results, but won’t be holding a conference call because of its pending merger with Southwest Airlines.

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