Hong Kong’s dominant air carrier Cathay Pacific Airways is heading for a record year, with plans to boost its fleet by more than a third, after first-half profit handily beat forecasts on a strong revival in international traffic.

Cathay, Asia’s No.4 carrier by market value, forecast a robust second half. The airline is typically stronger in the second half of the year due to peak summer traffic and a cluster of trade fairs toward the end of the year.

“The results are much higher than expected and beat all forecasts on the street,” said Jim Wong, an analyst at Nomura International.

“Cathay is likely set for a record profit year even after stripping away exceptional gains.”

Global airlines are recovering from the worst downturn in aviation history, though some analysts question if the rebound can be sustained with weakness in Europe threatening long-haul traffic demand.

The International Air Transport Association said recently that global airlines would turn a $2.5 billion profit this year, a stunning swing from the substantial loss of $2.8 billion the industry group had previously forecast.

Record Year Ahead?
Analysts are expecting a record-setting year in 2010, with premium passenger numbers expected to rise faster even as freight volume growth slows from its breakneck pace in May.

Flights from Hong Kong to Taiwan, one of Cathay’s most profitable routes, have returned to their levels of a few years ago, reaching 154 per week, said CEO Tony Tyler, speaking to reporters in Hong Kong.

Some analysts had worried that the initiation of direct flights between Taiwan and mainland China would mean fewer flights through Hong Kong, where Cathay’s hub is.

“Obviously, there’s been a transfer to direct flights,” said Tyler, “But there’s a significant share of the market ... that would like to come via Hong Kong.”

The company said it would order up to 30 A350-900s from Airbus, a unit of EADS , and it intends to exercise purchase rights to buy another six 777-300 ERs from Boeing , with total catalogue price of about HK$75 billion ($9.67 billion) for the 36 planes.

But the company has no immediate plans to consider buying Boeing’s new 787 aircraft and Airbus’s A380, said Tyler. (Reuters)

Taking into account other standing orders for aircraft, this will boost the current total number of planes by 40 percent from 166 at the end of June. The new orders will be delivered between 2016 and 2019.

Cathay posted a net profit of HK$6.84 billion for the six months ended June, up from HK$812 million a year ago, despite the interruption of aviation traffic earlier this year when ash from an Icelandic volcano shut down swathes of European airspace.

That represents the best-ever six-month profit for the company and beat an average forecast of HK$4.13 billion from six analysts surveyed by Reuters.

The earnings were boosted by stronger-than-expected freight volume as well as disposal gains from the sale of its shares in Hong Kong Aircraft Engineering Co Ltd and Hong Kong Air Cargo Terminals Ltd.

Over the past 60 days, analysts have upgraded their earnings per share (EPS) estimates on Cathay’s full-year results by a mean 42 percent, according to StarMine data. Market estimates on EPS rose 14 percent over the past seven days, the data showed.

Cathay’s load factors soared to the highest June on record with passenger demand exceeding 2008 levels.

Larger rival Singapore Airlines Ltd , the world’s No.2 airline, also posted a strong profit for the first quarter ended June.

Cathay plans to buy more shares of Air China , the country’s No. 1 airline in response to the Chinese airline’s plan to issue new shares, said Cathay Chairman Christopher Pratt.

“We are buying ahead of that dilution to make sure we at least maintain our stake and quite possibly we will increase it from that,” said Pratt.

Cathay holds 19.18 percent of Air China, which in turn owns nearly 30 percent of Cathay, a subsidiary of conglomerate