There are many things in common with a hooters restaurant and an airline. Both have attractive crew, both have wings, and both have twin large … uh – engines, that drive the business. But surely that isn’t enough for hooters, a male niche restaurant to start an airline. Where did they even get the idea to get into the flying game? And what happened? This is the hooters air story.
First, we need to set the table. Hooters Air’s story actually begins with another airline called Pace Air.
Pace air was founded back in 1996 and was designed as a luxury charter airline for sports teams, celebrities, and corporations with Boeing 737-200s carrying 44 passengers in an all-first-class layout. The venture was really successful and almost right away, the airline grew from just a single jet to four aircraft. By 1995, the airline had several scheduled charters with vacation destinations with a fleet of six Boeing 737-300s.
Everything was golden for the airline and by mid-2001, it had grown to a large charter carrier of 21 aircraft of 737s and 757s.
Around this same period Hooters owner, Robert Howell Brooks was shopping around for an airline. We can’t say for what reason he wanted to get into the airline game, but it was rumored that he got the idea from some college students that proposed it as the next step of his restaurant empire. The airline would not only be a profitable sector of his business but would also act as a flying billboard for the Hooters brand – which was rapidly growing at the time.
His motto: Good Food, Cold Beer and Pretty Girls never goes out of style.
Flush with cash, he first approached bankrupt Vanguard Airlines of Kansas City, which had suffered from the aviation downturn following 9/11, but was rejected because the bid was too low.
The CEO then turned to Pace Airlines and offered to buy the airline outright in 2003. With the deal done, he created the Hooters Air brand and set to work bringing the restaurant to the sky.
Hooters Air offices would be headquartered in Myrtle Beach, with the main Hooters head office. However, the operations/maintenance/flight personnel directly controlled by Pace Airlines remained largely based in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. Hooters Air would convert four Pace Airlines Boeing 737s with 114 seats onboard to the new livery, including adding the mascot (“Hootie the Owl”), on the vertical stabilizer.
Onboard passengers would be treated to two hooters girls from local restaurants that would spend time in the cabin chatting to passengers, playing trivia games and selling hooters merchandise. They did not however, perform any flight attendant duties. This is because also onboard are three or four actual trained cabin crew from pace airlines who wore modest uniforms, as opposed to the tighter outfits of the hooters girls, who served passengers food and drink and also performed all the safety aspects of traveling by air. By comparison, the hooters girls were completely untrained entertainers.
More features …
The airline targeted golfers from around the region to fly them to the many courses of myrtle beach, hooters would even run their own competitions in the sport. As part of its advertising campaign, the company advertised nonstop flights for most routes, including funny slogans like “Fly a mile high with us” and stuck to a flat price point of $129 per seat which is incredible for an airline that wasn’t specifically a low-cost carrier – they marketed themselves as a low-fare carrier.
It was comfortable too! The plane had 34-inch (86 cm) seating for all passengers, comparable to the legroom offered by many carriers’ business classes across the country; in keeping with the golf-friendly orientation of the carrier and the quirky advertising, this was called “Club Class” seating.
Also, at a time when many low-cost carriers were eliminating in-flight frills in an effort to curtail expenses, Hooters Air served complimentary meals to all customers on trips lasting over one hour. Although apparently, customers were a bit disappointed, the famous hooters’ wings and hooter in-restaurant experience was not replicated in the air – passengers were served Prestel and cold canned beverages.
The airline also had a reputation for safety and was never involved in any major incident. In fact, some sources have suggested that air marshals rarely stationed officers onboard the aircraft, and flight attendants said that the carriers were surprisingly respectful.
This model seemed rather successful, and it saw the Hooters Air fleet expand from the original four Hooters livery Pace aircraft to seven planes including a single Boeing 757-200. The route network would expand well beyond Myrtle Beach and feature flights across the country reaching as far away as Las Vegas, Denver and the Bahamas.
Pace Airlines itself continued to operate alongside the Hooters venture and got a big boost in 2004 when the carrier applied for 180-eftops to fly from Oakland, California, to Honolulu Hawaii – a first for the venture possibly outlining a future Hooters destination. In addition, the hooters airline also planned a direct Myrtle Beach to Las Vegas link to connect to the new Hooters resort and casino in the city.
The carrier got as far as performing two providing flights to Hawaii, before cancelling the two new routes. This would be the first of many red flags and mark the full extent of the carriers expansion.
In 2005, Hooters Air was operating cross country routes from Rockford, Illinoi to Denver (DEN) and Las Vegas (LAS) – these flights were subsidized with a guarantee that they would be profitable. Unfortunately and unannounced to Hooters Air, the same promise was given to a small carrier called United.
This plus a rapid increase in fuel prices, thanks to the impact of Hurricane Katerina on the Southern states, caused Hooters Air to pull out of Rockford before the end of the year 2005. It tried to compensate by raising prices but this plunged sales and it flew empty flights. It switched to short haul high-density routes but that also failed to make an impact. In January 2006, the airline suddenly ceased all scheduled operations citing rising costs and refunded tickets.
Pace Airlines would continue to operate charter operations for three more years before shutting down during the GFC when corporate clients ran out of budget. The Hooters livery planes however, would never hoot again.
What exactly happened?
Ultimately, there were several reasons why Hooters Air ended its shift in the airline game. The first, and most quoted reason was the rise of fuel prices during this period. A fixed cost that blew out the profit of the carrier. Plus, other airlines like Southwest and JetBlue began rapid expansion during this period and with vastly superior route networks, and frequent flier programs were able to gobble up Hooters market.
A suit …
Remember those college students that allegedly came to him with the idea for the airline?
They would sue Hooters, claiming that the CEO used their “concept, plan and work product” to start the airline in 2003, but never offered them management jobs or a stake in the company. The students were not successful with their case, after all it was just a simple university project that they did for free with no written contract, but it was a bad PR smear at a time when the airline was vulnerable.
In total, it is estimated that Hooters of American lost roughly $40 million in the long run. This isn’t counting the legal fees that Mr. Brooks himself faced as a result of launching the airline, or those for when he was sued. According to a source for this video, it didn’t really budge the bottom line of the restaurants either.
The positives …
As mentioned by other videos on the topic, the carrier did fill in an important market segment in America during that time, and brought plenty of business to Myrtle beach in a time that passengers were afraid to fly. It also served many airports that were rather remote, like Rockford, Illinoi, or Gary Airport in Chicago.
Today, other airlines carry on the carrier’s broad traditions, such as the infamously dubbed Bikini Airline of Viet Jet. While it may appeal to a certain male desire, ultimately, these airlines are judged by their on-time service record, aircraft, and seat price – which at the end of the day, no matter how much you dress up an aircraft with glee or the crew inside it, it still all comes down to price.
This was something that the Hooters Air experiment failed to overcome.
A small part of this research comes from a new aviation channel called Expo Aviation running a series of the same name. If you want to deep dive into this airline and many others, I suggest you check them out and give them some love from Found and Explained.
If you have an idea for a Grounded episode, let me know down in the comments. And if you enjoyed this then consider leaving a comment below. For those who want to support the channel more, we have a fantastic patreon that you can join and get exclusive livestreams, more content early when available, and have a custom livery appear in a future video.
Interestingly, you can take a quiz on this topic and find out how many questions you can get correctly. It’s right here. Good luck!
Thank you for your time.