updated 6/15/2005 6:50:44 PM ET 2005-06-15T22:50:44

Three former aviation students sued Hooters Air Wednesday, claiming the startup carrier used their business plan from a class project as the blueprint for launching the airline but never compensated them.

The former Southern Illinois University students said Hooters used their "concept, plan and work product" to start the airline in 2003, but never offered them management jobs or a stake in the company, according to a lawsuit filed in Cook County Circuit Court.

The men contend they presented a detailed business proposal to a representative from Hooters of America Inc. — the airline's parent company — who "expressed continuous interest in the project" but ultimately passed on the idea in 1999.

Hooters Air started flying four years later, bearing a strong resemblance to the students' business plan, the lawsuit alleges.

Mike McNeal, vice president of marketing for Atlanta-based Hooters of America Inc. — which operates the Hooters restaurant chain and also is named as a defendant — said Wednesday that the Hooters employee the students claim to have spoken to is the operator of several Chicago-area Hooters restaurants and not part of Hooters' corporate management team.

The man is employed by Hooters Management Corp., which is also named in the lawsuit, McNeal said.

"He wouldn't have any knowledge about what our plans were relative to the airline industry," McNeal said. He added that Hooters executives knew nothing about a class project and called the lawsuit "factually inaccurate and nothing more than a publicity stunt."

Sean Peirick, Michael Watts and James Johnson were all certified pilots seeking bachelor degrees in aviation management at SIU in 1997 when they were assigned a project to develop a business plan for a commercial airline.

The students spoke regularly with the Hooters contact while developing the proposal, which culminated in a detailed business plan and video that was given to Hooters of America Inc., the lawsuit says.

But the Hooters representative told the students in 1999 the company had no interest in starting an airline, the lawsuit alleges.

In 2002, Hooters acquired North Carolina-based Pace Airlines and launched Hooters Air the next year.

The plaintiffs claim Hooters Air today mirrors their original business plan — from flight schedules serving Denver, Las Vegas, Newark N.J., Gary, Ind. and other destinations to the airplane logos and the concept of having scantily clad "Hooters Girls" serve beverages on board.

They claim Hooters broke an "implied contract" and say they should have received management jobs or a piece of the company. They are seeking a jury trial to decide the case and are asking for an unspecified portion of profits from the business.

McNeal said he expects the case to be dismissed.

Myrtle Beach, S.C.-based Hooters Air operates Boeing 757 planes serving airports in Rockford; Gary, Ind.; Newark, N.J.; Baltimore; Columbus, Ohio; Denver; Pittsburgh, Las Vegas, Atlanta and Nassau, Fla.

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