t looks like the top airline story this week is Southwest's decision to come to Philadelphia in May. It was about time for Southwest to make a big move. After a steady growth spurt in the 1990s, it hadn't added a city in two years, and JetBlue was beginning to replace it as the industry's most-talked-about airline.

And the choice of Philadelphia is noteworthy. The last time Southwest went into a US Airways hub (BWI), it took over. Also, readers of tea leaves note that Southwest may be following a slightly different strategy here than elsewhere in the East, where it has favored outlying airports such as Islip, N.Y., and Providence, R.I.

So this will be an interesting battle to watch.

But there's another airline story developing in the background that may have as much or more to teach us. We refer -- seriously -- to Hooters Air, the public charter operation in Myrtle Beach, S.C., that carries the brand of the "delightfully tacky" restaurant chain. Hooters Air is adding Fort Myers, Fla., and Nassau, Bahamas, next month.

Big deal? Maybe not, but when you get past all the bad jokes and snickering, there's a curious business proposition here: the idea that inflight service can be "branded" by a ground-based entity that is not even flying the plane.

The Hooters Air public charters, operated by Pace Airlines, an independent charter carrier, are just like any other public charter except for the branding strategy and the presence of "Hooters Girls" on board.

Nobody else is doing this.

In the previous century, Donald Trump and MGM Grand tried to trade on their names to launch airline ventures, ultimately without success. Since then, no land-based brand names have taken to the air in the U.S. The closest parallel may be Virgin Atlantic, an airline that was founded on the idea of leveraging the power of the Virgin brand.

At a time when airline service is seen as a commodity and industry people refer to the major network carriers as the "Sick Six," do the brands of the major U.S. network airlines have anything left to leverage? Would you rent a car or stay in a hotel that carries the brand of one of the legacy U.S airlines?

Of course, there are lots of things airlines can do to get people off their couches, as Southwest and US Airways are about to demonstrate. But maybe one of the things that the airlines could use, in addition to common sense, cost-cutting and all the rest, is a revolution in branding.

• • •

The Cuba trip

e had a reporter in Cuba the other week. As she reports on Page 1 in the Nov. 3 issue, her trip was legal, legitimate, educational and fun.

No matter, we know our letters to the editor department will soon be deluged with letters and e-mail messages accusing us of undermining U.S. foreign policy and propping up a detested regime.

We respectfully disagree. She's glad she went, and so are we. And we would do it again in a heartbeat.

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