DUBAI - Dubai-listed Air Arabia AIRA.DU, the Middle East's largest low-cost carrier by market value, earned 103 million dirhams ($28 million) in the first quarter, up 32 percent from the year-earlier period.

Net income in the three months to March 31 rose to 103 million UAE dirhams, compared with 78 million dirhams in the first quarter of 2008, the firm said in a results statement that fell within the range of analysts' expectations.

The forecasts in a Reuters survey in April went from 83.00 million dirhams to 151.36 million dirhams, with the average at 106.45 million dirhams. [ID:nL2118582]

The carrier posted a turnover of 463 million dirhams in the first quarter of 2009, up 21 per cent compared to last year. The total number of passsengers in the period rose 26 percent compared to a year ago to 951,000, it said.

Through our ongoing organic growth strategy and operational excellence, Air Arabia will remain the market leader across the Middle East, North Africa and beyond, chief executive Adel Ali said in a statement, which did not elaborate.

The airline, based in Sharjah, one of seven members of the United Arab Emirates, posted a 45 percent increase in fourth-quarter profit last year.

Earlier this year, IATA said that after years of rapid growth, Middle Eastern airlines could double their losses to $200 million in 2009 as they felt the effect of the global financial crisis.

But some of the region's carriers have been reporting steady growth. Both Emirates and Qatar Airways said on Tuesday they expected to post a profit this year and Abu Dhabi-based Etihad Airways has said it expects revenue to grow 24 percent.

Adel told Reuters last week that the UAE budget carrier will launch flights to Paris, Barcelona and Brussels this month as it looks to boost revenue from its new Moroccan hub.

Air Arabia began services from Casablanca to London on Wednesday and is aiming to fly to as many as 15 destinations from its North African hub in its first year of operations.

(Reporting by Andrew Hammond; editing by Peter Blackburn)