HONG KONG - Air China, which posted bigger-than-expected 2008 losses, returned to profit in the first quarter of 2009, helped by an exceptional gain and lower fuel costs.

The country's flag carrier posted a net profit of 981.2 million yuan ($143.6 million) in the three months ended March, down 5.7 percent from the same period last year, based on Chinese accounting standards.

The net included a total 655 million yuan refund and exemption relating to CAAC Infrastructure Development Fund and fuel hedging losses of 989 million yuan, the company said in a statement on late Thursday.

But jet fuel costs dropped by 1.65 billion yuan during the reported period.

Air China also reported a loss of 9.26 billion yuan in 2008, under international accounting standards, due to huge fuel hedging losses and slowing demand amid the global financal crisis.

The loss was worse than an average forecast of a 5.58 billion yuan shortfall and compared with a restated profit of 4.05 billion yuan in 2007.

For annual results statement, please read here ($1=6.831 Yuan) (Reporting by Alison Leung; Editing by Ken Wills)