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Hooters Air gimmick appears to be just skin deep

June 01, 2003|Susan Spano | Times Staff Writer

I don't have to explain what sets Hooters Air apart from United and Delta, do I?

I've never eaten at a Hooters restaurant, but the chain's big-eyed owl logo -- a visual double-entendre suggesting certain female body parts much admired by men -- has seeped into my consciousness, and somehow I know exactly what a Hooters girl looks like.

She's a fresh-faced all-American sweetheart in her 20s, dressed in orange shorts that barely cover her behind and a cleavage-squeezing T-shirt. She serves burgers and chicken wings to patrons of Hooters restaurants.

And now she's walking the aisles on Hooters Air 737s.

Just don't ask her to bring you a soda or find the emergency flotation device. She's more an ornament than a flight attendant.

Or so I discovered recently on a Hooters flight from Newark, N.J., to Myrtle Beach, S.C., taken just to try the new airline. I planned to stay in South Carolina only one night, then fly Hooters back to Newark the next day. But a week before my trip, the airline called to tell me it had rebooked my return to Newark on Continental because the Hooters flight had been canceled (the result of underbooking, a company official later said).

The jokes rolled in when I told friends I had a Hooters ticket.

"Hope it's not a bust."

"Should be a mammarable flight."

"Serving wings and breasts, right?"

Very funny. But also distasteful to many of us who came of age with Gloria Steinem and the National Organization for Women. I'm told the atmosphere at Hooters restaurants is more PG-13 than R. Moreover, the company proudly notes that 28% of its customers are women and 10% are people with children younger than 12.

At a time of financial turmoil among most major carriers, concerns about safety and a paranoid sense of political correctness, I find it hard to believe that anyone would start an airline with the single distinction of pretty girls in too-tight tops. The bad old days when stewardesses were the stuff of heated male fantasies are long gone, aren't they?

Apparently not, if you're headed from Atlanta or Newark to Myrtle Beach on Hooters Air. It was launched March 6 by Robert H. Brooks, chief executive of Hooters of America Inc., which operates 339 Hooters restaurants in the U.S. and 24 foreign countries.

Brooks, who has been at the helm of the Hooters restaurant chain since 1985, late last year bought out Pace Airlines of Winston-Salem, N.C., a charter company with 17 planes. Since then, two of the fleet's 737s have been refitted to hold 112 leather seats in a single all-coach cabin and repainted to sport the loud orange Hooters logo.

On June 6, the little start-up airline will begin new routes with one round trip a week between Baltimore-Washington International and Newark and round-trip flights six days a week between BWI and Myrtle Beach. It plans eventually to carry passengers from other cities in the Northeast and Midwest to Myrtle Beach, a popular family vacation destination and golfing mecca.

"We don't claim to have any airline expertise, but the people who are supposed to aren't doing so well," Brooks says. "We won't be any worse than the rest of them."

Despite the sexy marketing and the company's stated desire to put the fun back in flying, Hooters is generally as staidly professional as other U.S. airlines. Each plane is staffed with a pilot, a copilot and three experienced flight attendants trained in safety procedures, besides the two Hooters girls for window dressing.

Newark Airport has signs for Hooters Air but no check-in counter; Delta employees handle ticketing and boarding. The Myrtle Beach airport has a big Hooters ticket counter, but it was deserted when I passed by, with a sign that instructed people who had missed their flights to go to the nearest Hooters restaurant.

I watched people arriving from Myrtle Beach on Hooters Air before my departure, a perfectly average group of passengers who didn't look as though they had just flown in from Sodom or Gomorrah.

Three women told me they had booked the Hooters flight just because it went nonstop to their destination. "The girls don't do anything for me," one confided, "but they're nice. Mostly they just sell T-shirts and do trivia quizzes." Then she revealed the answers to the questions -- the date of the airline's launch, the name of the first Hooters girl etc. -- so I could win prizes I didn't want, such as golf balls and $5 gift certificates to Hooters restaurants.

The Hooters plane I boarded was sparkling clean. The flight attendants, middle-aged women in modest navy blue suits, told me I could sit anywhere because there were only eight passengers. Takeoff went smoothly, and a tasty chicken wrap snack was served. Only after we were well underway did I spot a Hooters girl, who got up from a seat in the row behind me.

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