After a three-year run, Myrtle Beach's homegrown airline, Hooters Air, is bowing out of regularly scheduled air service.
The airline will cease its public charter flights April 17 and will run only private charters out of Winston Salem, N.C.
Bob Brooks, the airline's founder, and its president, Mark Peterson, said Hooters Air will serve large groups such as sports teams and tour groups, which was the original business model for Pace Airlines. Brooks acquired Pace in December 2002.
The airline has approximately 350 employees in Winston-Salem. Peterson said some will be laid off. About five Myrtle Beach employees, including ground and ticket agents, will also be laid off.
Hooters Air's departure could affect prices at Myrtle Beach International Airport and that means fewer flights for local residents and tourists.
"There is no good news to reduction of air service, particularly direct flights," said Brad Dean, president of the Myrtle Beach Area Chamber of Commerce. "In the case of Hooters, there's a double whammy. Fewer flights mean fewer people coming to the destination."
Hooters Air, he added, "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."
And losing the low-cost airline could translate into an increase in ticket prices, he said.
"Some people might say it's only 1,000 a week. but what you don't know is the impact on prices," Dean said.
Other airlines will likely pick up the slack, said Bob Kemp, director of Myrtle Beach International.
"They provided service to a lot of destinations and we're sorry to see them leave," Kemp said. "People will be able to get to all of their destinations on our existing carriers, it just won't be nonstop."
Using planes operated by Pace, Hooters Air launched its first scheduled flights from Myrtle Beach to Atlanta on March 6, 2003.
Brooks' planes not only advertised his Hooters restaurants but became one of the Grand Strand's more unusual promotional tools, with its fleet of orange-and-white Boeing jets.
The chairman of Hooters of America - the international restaurant chain known for its chicken wings and female servers dressed in snug T-shirts and orange shorts - said he hoped to "have a little fun" in an industry that had always fascinated him.
In July, the airline served 15 destinations, including nonstop flights to Nassau, Bahamas.
But high fuel prices and other challenges in the airline industry brought the fun to an end.
"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."
The first public sign of trouble for Hooters Air came when the airline began canceling holiday flights in December.
By January, the airline had ceased most of its flights but announced intentions to return to Myrtle Beach in the spring.
A few weeks ago, Brooks said the airline industry was in a state of flux and he was trying to roll with the punches, including the possibility of finding an investor.
"Now I think the best thing we can do is basically put it to bed, at least for right now, until the industry changes," Brooks said.
Jim Creel, a Myrtle Beach businessman and longtime friend of Brooks, had invested in Hooters Air and still believes air service is the key to the Grand Strand's future.
"I appreciate very much what Hooters Air did ... the concept, the excitement it brought," Creel said. "It's good to see somebody like Bob, who had the vision, and of course it grew, but it's got to be economically viable, and you can't keep funding something that's not making money."
Mickey McCamish, president of Myrtle Beach Golf Holiday, said Hooters Air flew to destinations that were important to golfers as well as residents.
"I guess I'm just so very appreciative of Mr. Brooks and his loyalty to our community," McCamish said. "But when you can see the cost of fuel go from $1 to $3 and you've already sold tickets at the $1 price ... it's a real tough industry."
While the airline has struggled, Hooters of America is seeing success with other business, including the Hooters Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas, the launch of a Hooters credit card andHooters magazine, Peterson said.
About 80 new Hooters restaurants will open this year, 60 in international locations.
Brooks "can easily make money without banging his head against the wall," Peterson said. "What Mr. Brooks intended to do when we started worked out pretty good when fuel prices were just over $1. Now that fuel prices have doubled, it's a lot harder to accomplish what we set out to do. For Hooters, as an organization, it's a business decision. It's shifting gears."
For smaller airlines such as Hooters Air, fuel prices are a major issue because they don't have the buying power of major airlines, said Bill Oliver, vice president of The Boyd Group, a Colorado-based airline consulting firm.
As a charter , Hooters Air also held cash from ticket sales in escrow and could not dip into funds until flights were completed.
"He's right, it would be foolish to continue to follow a dream that doesn't pay for itself," Oliver said. "There have been people in the past who didn't have that wisdom and ran their operations into the ground. Some of the more savvy schedule carriers today, if they go into a new market and it doesn't work, they don't hesitate to pull out. That's just good business sense."
Staff writer Garrison Wells contributed to this report.
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