How Hooters Air went from a successful airline to a $40 million failure in three years

Graham Flanagan, Katie Canales
  • Hooters, the restaurant chain known for its hot wings and tank top-wearing servers, operated an airline in the early 2000s.
  • You might not have known about it because it didn't last long - about three years in fact.
  • Here's how Hooters Air became a successful airline before turning into a $US40 million failure.

You might not remember it, but Hooters once had an airline.

The restaurant chain launched an air service in 2003, and onboard every flight were two Hooters servers that helped tend to passengers.

Three years after it launched, however, Hooters Air shut down, but not before the iconic "breastaurant" enjoyed a short period of success in the sky.

We talked to people who worked for Hooters Air - flight attendants and one pilot (who asked to remain anonymous) - as well as a few industry experts to find out what happened. They told us what it was really like to work for the airline, dispelled some common misperceptions about what it was like to fly it, and explained the airline's rapid downfall.

Here's how Hooters Air became a successful airline before turning into a $US40 million failure.

Hooters has been offering patrons beer and hot wings, among other things, from its chain of restaurants for 35 years now.

The chain's trademark waitresses, clad in orange shorts and tank tops, have helped cement Hooters as the original "breastaurant" of the food industry.

But as popular as the company may be, one fact often forgotten...

... is that Hooters also had an airline at one point.

You might not have known about it because it didn't last long.

It started in 2003, and, initially, the airline was successful. But it shut down just three years later.

The airline was based in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, and offered low-price, direct flights in the US.

Hooters Air flew to 15 destinations, including Las Vegas and Denver ...

... and airfares were a flat rate of $US129 each way.

So, why did Hooters think it was a good idea to start an airline? And why did it fail?

It all started in 1983 when Hooters was founded by six businessmen in Clearwater, Florida.

A year later, an Atlanta-based group led by Bob Brooks, seen below, saw the company's potential and bought it outright.

"It was the first 'breastaurant' chain, so basically they pioneered the idea that they were going to have all their waiters wear short shorts and really tight tank tops," Kate Taylor, a retail reporter at Business Insider, reported.

Source: Business Insider

"From the 80s until the early 2000s, it was a very successful kind of growing business," Taylor said.

By 2003, Hooters was flush with cash, and Bob Brooks wanted to expand the brand.

So he bought a small, North Carolina-based charter airline called Pace Airlines ...

... and repainted the aeroplanes with the company logo. Hooters Air soon took off.

"There was a lot of intrigue about this airline, not because of what was happening on the inside, but more so what people perceived from the outside," a former Hooters Air pilot who asked to remain anonymous told Business Insider.

In fact, a common misperception about Hooters Air was that the flight attendants on the flights were Hooters servers, otherwise known as Hooters Girls, which isn't true.

Every flight aboard Hooters Air was staffed by two Hooters Girls, and they did wear their signature shorts and tank top ensembles.

Back in 2003, before Hooters Air made its maiden flight out of Gary, Indiana ...

... Hooters recruited servers from some of its local restaurants to work aboard its flights.

But they weren't serving wings or beer 35,000 feet in the air.

"It's gonna be a nice change of pace from the restaurant," one Hooters Girl told local TV at the time. "Instead of serving food and picking up trash, we get to just basically entertain and ask trivia questions and all that."

Source: Nick Mantis/New Millenium Productions

Since they lacked the FAA certification that the flight attendants had, Hooters servers could not operate any machinery onboard, like closing the aeroplane doors or pushing the food carts.

Source: Nick Mantis/YouTube

In addition to the Hooters servers that staffed each flight, three FAA-certified flight attendants were also aboard every flight, and they were the ones who served food and drinks to passengers...

... while the Hooters Girls aboard simply entertained guests and helped the flight attendants with whatever they needed.

These flight attendants did not don the usual garb associated with the restaurant chain.

"I had a navy blue dress with like, a little orange scarf," former Hooters Air flight attendant Sara Nitz told Business Insider. "Very professional."

"It had the little owl embroidered on it," Nitz said.

"We had two Hooters Girls from different restaurants from the area that would do the trivia on the plane, but they had no training whatsoever," former Hooters Air flight attendant Kimberly Cerimele told Business Insider.

"They were just there just for passenger fun," Cerimele said.

But the women were still working. One Hooters Girl told local TV that the shifts were round trip, with workdays spanning from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m.

Source: Nick Mantis/YouTube

The airline didn't just switch up the pace for Hooters employees ...

... it bolstered the local economies of its smaller US destinations, like Gary, Indiana, which sits 25 miles southeast from Chicago.

Paul Karas, manager of Gary/Chicago International Airport, said Hooters Air flying into the area translated into more airline service, more airline activity, more economic development, and more jobs.

But the small Indiana town of Gary wasn't the only market to experience an economic boom ...

... the city of Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, where the airline was officially headquartered, also enjoyed economic stimulation.

"In its heyday, Hooters Air was bringing between 3,000 and 5,000 a week into the Myrtle Beach area," Brad Dean, the CEO of the Myrtle Beach chamber of commerce, told Business Insider.

But as big as Hooters Air was for Myrtle Beach, it wasn't enough to keep it airborne. So Hooters shut it down in 2006, citing a $US40 million loss.

Airline industry analyst Henry Harteveldt told Business Insider that the airline's demise was compounded by a few factors. "They started the airline as the airline industry was recovering from the 9/11 attacks. People were scared of getting on aeroplanes," he said.

"There was growing low-fare competition in the market as Southwest and other airlines in the market had begun to expand," he said.

And jet fuel prices were trending upwards. "So it just wasn't an economically viable business," Harteveldt said.

Still, "there are people at work and people visiting the Myrtle Beach area that might never have had the opportunity to do so if it weren't for Bob Brooks, so we remain very grateful for his investment in his airline and our community," Dean said.

And despite the failure of Hooters Air, the 35-year-old Hooters brand continued to thrive.

They have opened up hundreds of locations in the US ...

...as well as outside the US.

"They're more than a $US250 million business at this point," Taylor said. "And they kind of took over the US and then the world."

Overall, the people we talked to have fond memories of Hooters Air.

"There was definitely flirtiness," Cerimele said. "With any flight, you're gonna come across people that have drank too much, but nothing bad. It was fun."

"It was just very happy memories," she said.

"I'm probably one of the few pilots that can say I actually went to pilot heaven," the anonymous pilot said.