Tar Heel Tattler - April 2006

Idea of new Twin City flights is a real Hooters
By Irwin Speizer

Smith Reynolds Airport in Winston-Salem hasn’t had passenger air travel since a US Airways commuter airline left in January 2000. It cost residents more than a loss of convenience. Without commercial passengers, Smith Reynolds doesn’t qualify for federal airport-improvement grants.

Hooters girls to the rescue! Hooters Air, the cheeky — as in bold — carrier launched by the Myrtle Beach, S.C.-based restaurant chain, plans to offer flights between Winston-Salem and Newark, N.J., by the end of summer. “This would be a great benefit if we can get it off the ground,” says Christopher Veal, interim airport director. If Hooters Air can attract 10,000 passengers annually for its daily service to Newark, Smith Reynolds would qualify for federal grants worth $1.1 million a year. It could repave runways and expand taxiways to new hangars, which could help attract additional private and corporate clients.

How did Smith Reynolds hitch its future to Hooters Air? And what makes the airline think it will make it when the region’s biggest airport — Piedmont Triad International, about 27 miles away in Greensboro — is struggling, its passenger count down nearly 16% in December 2005 from the year before?

Turns out it’s all a marriage of convenience. The flights will be offered through Pace Airlines, a charter carrier based at Smith Reynolds. Its clients include much of the National Basketball Association. The majority owner is Robert Brooks, chairman of Atlanta-based Hooters of America Inc., parent of the restaurant chain and the airline.

He launched the airline in 2003, adding two Hooters hostesses to the flight crew. Aircraft maintenance takes place at Pace’s Smith Reynolds shop. Hooters Air flies empty planes there for maintenance and then flies them, still empty, to other airports.

Since flying passenger planes without passengers makes little economic sense, Hooters Air and Pace teamed up to try to fill some seats. Surveys suggested the New York metro area as a destination. Hooters Air serves Newark, so that seemed the most logical choice. And even half-empty planes look golden on what has been a dry run.

“There is probably enough traffic for us to break even or maybe make a little bit,” says Jim McPhail, Pace COO. “That‘s reason enough for us to go ahead and do it.”