March 14, 2006

Hooters Story

Hooters Air will cancel flights to two Florida vacation spots after Thursday, an airport official said, just two months after the airline laid off its six locally based flight attendants.Flights to Fort Lauderdale and St. Petersburg, Fla., will cease, said Eric McKitish, marketing director of Wilkes-Barre/Scranton International Airport.Service to Orlando will continue, and flights to Myrtle Beach, S.C., will begin next weekend as planned, he said.The reason for the change is not clear.“We have not spoken with the airline, but we did get an updated schedule — it looks like we are going to get a service reduction,” McKitish said.

Rough financial times at Myrtle Beach-based Hooters Air may have led to the cutback.The airline has canceled many other routes around the country in recent months.It also reportedly owed more than $1 million in unpaid fuel bills to Lehigh Valley International Airport near Allentown as of last week.All those signs combined suggest the airline’s future could be in jeopardy, said John Pincavage, an aviation industry financial analyst.“The fact that they are not current on bills would indicate they are having some strains on their cash flow,” Pincavage said. “When times are decent, times are good, it never happens.”Efforts to reach Hooters Air President Mark Peterson were unsuccessful Friday. Peterson has previously blamed the airline’s struggles on high jet fuel prices.The price of jet fuel sold in New York Harbor climbed 83 percent over the past two years, according to the U.S. Department of Energy.

Local Hooters Air flights started in late October as nonstop service. The next month, however, fuel prices forced the Fort Lauderdale and St. Petersburg routes to begin making pit stops in Allentown to pick up more passengers.It appears Hooters will continue flying to Orlando, which is the only destination required by its service agreement with Lackawanna and Luzerne counties and the airport.That 11-month agreement subsidized Orlando flights with $325,000 from a combination of federal and county tax dollars, in exchange for guaranteed service.

It is not clear how long the parent company would be willing to operate Hooters Air at a financial loss, said Michael Boyd, president of the Evergreen, Colo.-based aviation consulting firm the Boyd Group.The airline was created three years ago, in large part to promote the restaurant chain of its parent company, Hooters of America Inc.“Hooters is a little different, in that it really is flying billboards for the restaurant,” Boyd said. “They will come and go (from markets).”Very little financial information is publicly available about the privately held company.There will probably be little or no advance public notice if the airline ceases operation in the future, Boyd said.

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