Hooters in the air?

August 15, 2002: 8:41 AM EDT

KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) - Will Vanguard Airlines, known for its low fares, and Hooters Girls, known for their high-cut shorts, soon be corporate cousins?

Hooters of America Inc. chairman Robert H. Brooks is thinking about buying Vanguard, the Kansas City-based discount carrier that filed for bankruptcy protection and grounded its fleet last month. On Wednesday, a bankruptcy judge told Brooks he can give Vanguard $50,000 per week for the next three weeks to pay a skeleton staff, while Brooks examines the company's books and decides if he wants to buy.

A newly formed company called Hooters Air Inc. will make the payments.

So what kind airline would Hooters Air Inc. run? Vanguard spokeswoman Elizabeth Cattell said it's too soon to know.

"If it'll be 'Hooters Girls' flight attendants, it's too early," Cattell said.

But she didn't dismiss the idea.

Cattell called said there's more to Brooks than Hooters. Brooks, Cattell said, has built Hooters into a "fresh product" with 315 stores in the U.S. and overseas. To Vanguard, he would bring financial strength, "which is what we've needed all along," she said.

Brooks' Atlanta-based attorney, A.J. Block, said Brooks would decide in the next several weeks whether to buy Vanguard.

"Mr. Brooks is a pretty decisive guy," Block said.

In the meantime, the handful of Vanguard employees at the company's headquarters are working toward two goals: Vanguard's possible return to flying, and liquidation, Cattell said.

Vanguard suspended flights, laid off 90 percent of its employees and filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection on July 30.

Vanguard attorney Dan Flanigan said Brooks' interest came out of the blue.

"He came out of such an unusual place -- no one would have predicted it would be him we would be talking to at this point," Flanigan said.

If Brooks doesn't buy Vanguard, it's not immediately clear whether the airline is likely to find any other suitors.

Flanigan said he believed discussions are happening with other potential investors, although he said he did not know details of those discussions. Analysts have expressed doubts, however, about Vanguard's prospects for getting financial help.

Vanguard served Myrtle Beach, S.C., where Brooks lives.

"So he is very much a supporter of Myrtle Beach, and the termination of Vanguard was disturbing to all of Myrtle Beach," Block said. Brooks also has a strong interest in aviation and owns an airplane, although he doesn't fly it himself, Block said.

Brooks founded Eastern Foods Inc. in 1966, which makes dressings and sauces. Hooters was founded in 1983, and Brooks and a group of Atlanta investors bought expansion and franchise rights for the chain in 1984. Brooks eventually bought majority control and became chairman.

Vanguard had never shown a yearly profit. But Sept. 11 made its problems worse, and it became one of three airlines to file for bankruptcy since the terrorist attacks. The others were US Airways, on Sunday, and Midway Airlines.