top of page

Nostalgia Corner: Hooters Air


It's time to get canceled. What I remember about this airline was recruiting attempts from my local airport to launch service from Worcester. With a marketing pitch that certainly would not stand the test of time today, Hooters Air was an interesting attempt to combine the branding of the restaurant chain with an airline customers would continue to return to.

With a base in Myrtle Beach, Hooters Air served other point-to-point leisure routes, such as Rockford, IL, to Las Vegas. Unfortunately, the airline had a very short tenure of approximately three years. The restaurant chain lost roughly $40 million in this business venture.


History

In 2002, Hooters Founder and C.E.O. Robert Brooks sought to launch an airline under his branding, like Richard Branson and Virgin Atlantic. At first, he looked to the bankrupt Vanguard Airlines as an acquisition target. However, they balked at his attempt to acquire their assets, and he then moved on to Pace Airlines. In December 2002, a deal to purchase the Winston-Salem-based airline became final.

In April 2003, flights were launched from Myrtle Beach to Atlanta and Baltimore utilizing freshly painted Boeing 737-200s. Service would launch to primarily smaller airports near larger metropolitan areas when starting new routes. For example, Gary, I.N., and Rockford, I.L., were alternatives to Chicago. Likewise, Columbus-Rickenbacker was chosen instead of the primary Columbus International Airport.

This transaction included the contracts for Vacation Express that Pace previously operated under a scheduled charter arrangement for leisure and vacation travelers. Also, in 2003, Vacation Express was acquired by a parent company that welcomed SunTrips to its organization. SunTrips, a Bay Area travel company similar to Vacation Express, was looking to launch scheduled charter flights between California and Hawaii utilizing Hooters’ Boeing 757-200. Thus, in 2004, Hooters Air began the process for ETOPS certification.

The airline continued to grow gradually, and in 2005, service began to Denver and Las Vegas from Rockford, IL. Things were looking up for the carrier until Hurricanes Katrina and Rita struck the Gulf Coast. Following the back-to-back disasters, gas prices began to soar, significantly impacting Hooters Air’s cash flow. Additionally, United Airlines started to direct resources to compete with Hooters, eventually becoming too much to surmount.

In January 2006, scheduled airline operations terminated effective immediately. Pace continued to operate charter flights under its original branding for another three years. However, even they ceased operations in 2009 following the economic downturn.



Business

As you can imagine, a lot went into making the airline what it was. Despite its failure, the airline was successful for some time. At its peak, the carrier brought around 4,000 tourists to the Myrtle Beach area weekly. Other markets generated similar success, with other markets constantly being analyzed. At one point, Hooters Air even considered launching Las Vegas to Myrtle Beach utilizing its Boeing 757-200.

The most significant aspect of the Pace Airlines acquisition was the accumulation of assets required to operate the flights. For example, since the Hooters Girls on the flights were not trained flight attendants, they were not legally allowed to use any aircraft components. Thus, each flight was additionally staffed with 2-3 FAA-certified flight attendants from Pace to perform flight duties as the Hooters girls would assist.

The idea to service smaller airports primarily kept costs low, drawing passengers out of metropolitan areas in exchange for more competitive airfares. As we know, passengers are more willing to make this tradeoff for leisure travel. While organized as a low-cost carrier, the interiors featured a comfortable layout designed for the “golf getaway” crowd. Myrtle Beach is one of the country’s most attractive golf destinations, making the service an appropriate fit.

At an airport like Gary, Indiana, the presence of Hooters Air generated a much-needed positive impact on the local economy. As the Airport Director, Paul Karas, points out, a carrier serving an airport brings positivity in the form of jobs, non-aeronautical revenue (such as parking and rental cars), and passenger traffic that would not be there otherwise. Commercial air service has been intermittent at best in Gary since Hooters Air ceased operations.

Inversely, at Rockford, I.L., Hooters terminated service after the airport authority lured in competition from United Airlines on its Rockford-Denver route. The issue was not necessarily the aspect of competition - even for a small carrier like Hooters Air, competition is far from a final blow. The problem was that the authority awarded revenue guarantees to United that they had not allowed Hooters at any point of its tenure, presenting an ethical conflict of interest.


Photo: Eric S. Lesser | Getty Images.


Marketing

Well, it is easy to see the appeal of the branding. Indeed, a population of customers was willing to venture onto a flight for the same perks of the regular Hooters restaurant chain. For this reason, Hooters Air actually exceeded the expectations of typical smaller charter carriers.

Being a smaller airline, they lacked the resources for extensive organic marketing efforts that we have seen in other carriers of the time - failed or not. Thus, what the airline lacked in assets, it made up for in brand power, carrying the same name and logos as the parent restaurant chain. The airline used slogans that certainly would not “fly” today, such as “Fly a mile high with us.”

However, as limited as they were internally, an advantage of flying into smaller secondary airports was the additional resources local governments could utilize to market the flights. The money must be spread equally amongst the tenants at an airport with several carriers. However, with Hooters being one of maybe a handful, more local funding can be invested into maximizing marketing efforts or, at the very least, more efficiently.

The presence of local Hooters Girls on flights was a noted marketing effort in itself. A common misconception was that these employees were flight attendants, but that was not the case, as I mentioned. The Hooters Girls would engage the customers with trivia and customary Hooters customer service, including full meals for all passengers on flights over one hour. This was notable since, at the time and even now, such service is far and few between.

One thing I caught is the creativity in the tail numbers. I wondered why Pace invested resources to change tail numbers, but it clicked. Many aircraft ended with a zero, followed by “WL." Hooters is well known for its trademark owl in its branding, hence the "OWL" at the end of aircraft tail numbers.


Hooters Air Today

This will be another one of my articles where not much remains of Hooters Air today. Myrtle Beach has seen a similar network supplanted by Spirit Airlines and, perhaps more accurately, Allegiant Air. Although none of the established city pairs seem to live on today, Hooters did prove that you could profitably fly from smaller markets to Myrtle Beach, particularly during seasonal periods.

I would even go as far as to say that Hooters eventually formed Myrtle Beach Direct Air, later known simply as Direct Air. I see similarities beyond a common base at Myrtle Beach International Airport. Both were structured as scheduled charter airlines with the ability to perform charter work outside the scope of their network flying. Later, Direct Air would expand beyond Myrtle Beach, directly competing with Allegiant at Orlando-Sanford and eventually proving the feasibility of flying out of Fort Myers-Punta Gorda.

Currently, all of Pace's aircraft have either been broken up or stored. While most flying types still live on today, Pace had some of the earliest builds for the aircraft variants they flew. For example, its sole Boeing 757 was delivered in 1987. Shortly after Pace folded in 2009, the 23-year-old aircraft was scrapped in Victorville, presumably for parts.

Of course, the Hooters brand itself lives on today. This article was focused on the airline - how you feel about the ethical composition of the brand is left up for interpretation. I have only been maybe twice, and I do have to say, the wings were some of the best I had ever had. Worth noting is that a couple of college students sued C.E.O. Bob Brooks for stealing their idea of a Hooters airline. But I digress.

Like Carnival and Hooters, will we see more companies venture into the airline business in the future? The combination has proved to be relatively successful in the timeframes - both we have covered so far actually performed above expectations, and who can dismiss the success of both Richard Branson and Sir Freddie Laker's efforts as failures (although Laker was not able to sustain the same success as Branson!)? It is just that life seems to have a way of spelling the end of carriers seemingly on the brink, unable to withstand things like global pandemics.

bottom of page