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Wed, Mar 29, 2006

Hooters Air Folds Its Wings

Will Focus On Charter Ops

After a moderately successful three-year run, Hooters Air announced Wednesday the airline is ending regularly scheduled passenger service, effective April 17.

Many in the industry saw the end coming, especially after Hooters ended holiday service to several cities at the end of last year. High fuel prices are considered the most likely culprit for the airline's failure.

From now on, the airline will focus exclusively on charter flights for sports teams and tour groups -- the original business model for Hooters Air operator Pace Airlines, which Hooters founder Bob Brooks purchased in 2002.

The end of Hooters comes as a disappointment to several cities still served by the airline, including Myrtle Beach, SC.

"There is no good news to reduction of air service, particularly direct flights," Brad Dean, president of the Myrtle Beach Area Chamber of Commerce, told the Myrtle Beach Sun News. "In the case of Hooters, there's a double whammy. Fewer flights mean fewer people coming to the destination."

Hooters Air had ceased operations in Myrtle Beach in February, but airline officials had told the city it would resume service in spring.

Dean added Hooters Air "was flying in 1,000 to 1,200 passengers a week on average. That's noteworthy. Hooters Air brought in tourists, and that benefited the market. Some people might say it's only 1,000 a week. But what you don't know is the impact on prices."

Some of the 350 people at Hooters Air's home office in Winston-Salem, NC will lose their jobs during the transition to charter-only service, said airline president Mark Peterson, as will ticket agents and other employees at former Hooters destinations.

At its inception in 2003, Brooks said he planned to "have a little fun" in an industry he said had always fascinated him. Already a wealthy man from the successful chain of restaurants known for its chicken wings -- served by waitresses in tight shirts and skimpy shorts, of course -- Brooks invested in Pace Airlines, with its small fleet of Boeing 737 and 757 aircraft, to fly to a variety of destinations.

The model worked for awhile -- low prices, desirable destinations and, er, friendly flight attendants (each Hooters Air flight featured two Hooters servers onboard) kept the planes flying, both hauling passengers and serving as highly-recognizable billboards for Hooters restaurants.

Brooks said Wednesday he saw no need to throw good money after bad.

"The flying industry is in a terrible mess," Brooks said. "I've got a fair amount of money, but I don't have enough to fix this animal... I think the best thing we can do is basically put it to bed, at least for right now, until the industry changes."

While his airline may have failed, Brooks may take some comfort in Hooters' recent string of successes, including a Las Vegas casino, credit card, and magazine. And, of course, there are the restaurants -- with about 80 more planned to open this year, 60 of them overseas.

FMI: www.hootersair.com

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