Two years ago, the first Hooters Air flight took off from Myrtle Beach on the dreams of a Loris-born entrepreneur who made his fortune selling coffee creamer and salad dressing and later became owner of the Hooters restaurant chain.
Since 2003, the airline has gone from one destination and one aircraft to 13 destinations and an expected fleet of eight Boeing 737s and 757s by June.
Hooters Air founder Bob Brooks said the airline eventually would like to serve European destinations.
"Why not?" Brooks said. "They've got to take off from somewhere."
Hooters Air President Mark Peterson said the airline will continue its pattern of measured growth.
"I wouldn't say our expansion has been terribly rapid," Peterson said. "It's been slow and measured and will continue to be so. We certainly think our niche is a leisure market."
The airline next week expects to begin operating flights from Allentown, Pa., to St. Petersburg, Fla.
Hooters Air will take over flights operated by Lehigh Valley Air at St. Petersburg-Clearwater International Airport.
Allentown will become a hub that is expected to feed travelers into Myrtle Beach in the near future, Peterson said.
Brad Dean, chairman of the Myrtle Beach Area Chamber of Commerce, said Pennsylvania was the third-highest state in terms of visitor origin for the Grand Strand last year.
"It's giving people who already come here once a year the opportunity to come more frequently," Dean said. "That's a pretty important enhancement to the market."
Peterson said Hooters' niche market will include some gaming venues. The airline on June 9 will begin serving Las Vegas, where a Hooters Casino Hotel is planned to launch next year.
In February, the Hooters restaurant chain debuted in Cancun, Mexico, a site that Hooters Air might look at as a possible destination in the future, Peterson said.
The airline launched its first international flights last year from Myrtle Beach to Nassau, Bahamas.
Airline analyst Bill Oliver, vice president of The Boyd Group in Colorado, said Hooters Air is unique.
"While the Hooters name is new in the marketplace, they're really coming from an operation that's experienced," Boyd said. "They seem to have merged these two things together ... the marketing savvy of Hooters and a successful, established operation."
Brooks bought Winston-Salem, N.C.-based Pace Airlines in December 2002 to advertise his restaurants while bringing additional air service to Myrtle Beach. Each Boeing jet displays the orange-and-white Hooters logo and carries two waitresses in trademark orange shorts who entertain passengers with trivia games. The paint job alone costs between $75,000 and $100,000 per aircraft, Peterson said.
Since its inception, the airline has grown to 250 employees, not including 350 Pace employees who fly and maintain the aircraft.
"To be expanding in this industry takes somebody with a lot of foresight and a lot of guts willing to accept the risks, and that's Mr. Brooks," Peterson said. "He's had a vision in mind in terms of Hooters Air, and we've tried to keep up with that."
Lack of space at Myrtle Beach International Airport is one reason Hooters Air has not been able to increase destinations out of Myrtle Beach, Peterson said.
"The Myrtle Beach airport is full," Peterson said. "We could be doing more now if we had the facilities, and we don't. We have four flights coming in now in the middle of the day, and we have two gates available. In order to operate a hub, you need gates and you need to be able to process people."
Brooks said he is concerned about the airport and the challenges presented by the new $228 million terminal, planned to open by 2008.
"Nobody's asking the airlines what they need," Brooks said. "I think the airport they have could be remodeled and work fine. I think it probably needs another runway more than a new terminal. You can build gates with the current footprint much cheaper."
As for Hooters Air, Brooks said there have been no surprises for the airline. "Long range, Myrtle Beach has been good to us and we'd like to continue here," Brooks said.