Alcoa (NYSE: AA) typically plays a pace car role during earnings season. The company is the first of the Dow Jones Industrial contingent off the starting line, and thereby provides some indication of what may occur as other companies follow.

This time its leadoff for the emerging recitation of results for the first quarter of 2010 represented a number of improvements. For the period, the company recorded a loss of $201 million, or $0.20 per share. Not good, but better when compared to a loss of $497 million, or $0.61 a share for the same quarter a year ago. And if you back out the $295 million in one-time charges -- versus $69 million in the March 2009 quarter -- Alcoa would have chalked up $0.10 per share in earnings for the latest quarter. And while the expectations were for revenues of $5.24 billion, rather than the actual $4.89 billion, the operating profit was right on target.

Looking at the individual segments, Alumina reported after-tax operating income (ATOI) of $72 million, up from just $19 million in the sequentially prior quarter. At the same time, Primary Metals checked in with ATOI of $123 million, fully $337 million higher sequentially. Flat-Rolled Products dipped $7 million to $30 million in ATOI compared to the previous quarter. And finally, despite lower sales, the Engineered Products and Solutions segment engineered a 42% ATOI increase.

So the Alcoa numbers showed enough improvement overall that I'm eagerly awaiting releases from its smaller cousins, Century Aluminum (Nasdaq: CENX) and Kaiser Aluminum (Nasdaq: KALU), the week after next. It'll be especially noteworthy if they are as optimistic as Alcoa CEO Klaus Kleinfeld during his company's conference call.

As you know, aluminum finds its way into a variety of aerospace applications, among other things. Mr. Kleinfeld was quick to note that both Boeing (NYSE: BA) and Airbus have six year order backlogs on their books. Beyond that, he also pointed out that "global automotive production [is] expected to rebound in 2010; plus 9% is our expectation, 62.2 million vehicles, that's pretty much in every region except Europe." As he also pointed out, automotive sales were strong during March, with both Toyota (NYSE: TM) and Ford (NYSE: F) jumping 40% year over year.

So my feeling is that Alcoa may be rounding the bend toward a meaningful strengthening. On that basis, and while there clearly remain economic questions to be answered in its sector, I'd suggest that Fools watch this big aluminum company very closely.

Fool contributor David Lee Smith doesn't own shares in any of the companies named. He does welcome your comments. Ford Motor is a Motley Fool Stock Advisor pick. Try any of our Foolish newsletters today, free for 30 days. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy that won't rust, crack, or peel.