When investors think airlines, most think losses. Not only does Southwest Airlines (NYSE:LUV) not fit that mold, it just reported its 52nd consecutive profitable quarter. That is LUV'ly indeed.

Over those lucky 13 years, Southwest has built one of the strongest balance sheets is the industry. And while this quarter's profit was a mere $26 million, it was up 8.3% from last year. Compared with Delta's (NYSE:DAL) $383 million first-quarter loss, that profit looks titanic.

As importantly, those years of profitability have Southwest net cash (cash minus debt) positive. For comparison, low-cost competitor AirTran (NYSE:AAI) is also cash positive, but hotshot JetBlue (NASDAQ:JBLU) is not. Then there is U.S. Airways (NASDAQ:UAIR), which is still in the hole. How will it ever defend its Philadelphia hub from Southwest while paying interest on a debt that size?

This year, Southwest's biggest advantage may be the more than 80% of its jet fuel needs it has hedged at a bargain price of $24 a barrel. That translated into a $63 million gain in the first quarter alone. How would you like to be Northwest Airlines (NASDAQ:NWAC) or United parent UAL (OTC BB: UALAQ.OB) -- neither is hedged and they carry debt to the tune of $5.4 billion and $8.8 billion, respectively? It hardly seems fair.

Unfortunately, the cost of owning all this LUV'liness is 29 times 2004 estimated earnings. That's rich even for a best-of-breed low-cost airline with a proven track record, especially at a time when new and healthy rivals are targeting the market.

Yes, Southwest is LUV'ly. But sadly, for this value investor at least, the price of admission to this cyclical commodity business is much too dear.

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Fool contributor W.D. Crotty does not own stock in any of the companies mentioned.