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Retiring flight attendant looks back on nearly 50 years of change

Diane Hansen started working as a flight attendant at 18, when rules for appearance were strict

When Diane Hansen first clipped on her stewardess wings as an 18-year-old, "stews" couldn't be married and had to submit to weigh-ins, girdle checks and hairdo inspections before every flight.

Their most important attributes were long legs and pretty faces. Being ogled or pinched by lecherous passengers was just part of the job.

That was in 1967, the glamour era of air travel. And the stews of California's Pacific Southwest Airlines — with their false eyelashes, miniskirts and 4-inch-heels — were known around the country as the hottest girls in the skies.

"Our job was to make flying fun," Hansen said. "And we did it with pride."

"You start when you're 18 or 20; you love the high heels, the uniform, wearing lots of makeup. You think you'll fly for a couple of years and then go off to college or get married or start a real career," she said. "But it evolved and we evolved. We grew up together, doing a job we loved. And we knew we did it well."

Hansen spent 21 years with PSA — the original low-fare, big-smile airline — which traversed California from 1949 until 1988, when US Airways bought the commuter carrier. By then stewardesses had become flight attendants and Hansen was in management. With US Airways, she returned to flying and spent the last 26 years tending passengers.

She imagined flying forever; she'd joke that the cabin beverage cart could double as her walker.

But at 66, Hansen has decided to ground herself. She retired this month with a flight bag of mixed feelings. She still loved the camaraderie but missed the old-time cachet.

"The biggest difference now is back then we were admired. We were respected," she said. "Even though you're wearing those little costumes and the butterfly eyelashes, if you told [passengers] to do something, they did it."

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Those little costumes were legendary. And the airline was notoriously demanding.

When Hansen signed on, the uniform included a celery-green miniskirt with orange piping and ruffled pettipants. A few years later they switched to hot pants and orange go-go boots.

Every woman had to wear lipstick in Hula Orange and always have a spare pair of nylons. They had to submit to inspections to ensure they'd shaved their legs, and keep errant curls glued to their heads so their hairdos wouldn't muss. They could be fired for weighing in at 2 pounds over the limit the airline set. They had to wear high heels and a dress just to pick up their paychecks.

They griped about it then, but they laugh about it now.

The airline used their rakish beauty as a marketing tool, endowing them with celebrity status. That's why — even though the pay was bad, the schedules brutal and there was nothing exotic about a flight to Sacramento — so many California girls grew up wanting to be flight attendants.

"There were 1,000 applications for every opening," Hansen recalled. She was shocked when she was hired. She'd stuffed her long hair under a $14 wig and applied on a whim while she was in San Diego visiting a college friend.

The interview process resembled a beauty pageant performance.

"We'd show up to do interviews and there would be a line around the block," said retired flight attendant Marilyn Tritt, who wrote a book about the era, "Long Legs and Short Nights." "We'd take them in 10 at a time, ask why do you want the job, then tell them to walk to the corner of the room, pivot and walk back."

Some standards were unwritten, she said, but exacting: Blondes should have blue eyes, brunettes should have green, cute redheads could have either. You had to be younger than 29. 

Minorities didn’t have a fair shot. There were no slots for men.

The rules then reflected what we recognize now as bias and sexism. Women couldn't be PSA pilots; "no fingernail polish on the hands on the controls," was a running joke back then. And when men were added to the cabin crews in the early '70s, they were allowed to serve cocktails but not coffee; that didn't look "manly" enough.

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Over time the standards eased and mandates were lifted. Some change was wrought by lawsuits and some by the shifting social ethos of the '60s and '70s. PSA's flight attendants formed a union; Hansen was on the committee in 1971 that negotiated their first contract, giving them more stable pay, manageable schedules and protection if they challenged company edicts on appearance and performance.

"Things began to evolve," Hansen said. "We started wearing less makeup, didn't have to wear false eyelashes, had more freedom in our hairdos."

And they learned to appreciate the stringent safety training the airline had given them.

What had been a short-term glamour gig became a professional career. That's reflected in the demographics of cabin crews today. In 1980, 8 in 10 flight attendants were under 35. Now, "stews" with AARP cards might not be the norm, but 1 in 5 is 55 or older, and more than half of flight attendants are at least 45.

Hansen's cronies feted her last weekend at a retirement party and brunch at her home in Laguna Beach. I could tell from the good looks in that crowd that those grooming lessons stuck. The women spent hours trading raucous stories I promised not to share. Many have retired, but others still love the lifestyle so much they're aiming for 50-year careers.

"The era of the good stewardess isn't gone," Hansen said. "We're making half of what we were, and we have to fly more. But you still put on your hat and smile."

She suspects that she'll have trouble adjusting to retirement. "I find myself bringing up the fact that I fly as often as I can.... This is all I've done for two-thirds of my life. I'm in a tailspin now."

But soon she'll level off and find a comfortable cruising altitude — held aloft by her memories and the bonds of a sorority that calls itself the Clipped Wings.

sandy.banks@latimes.com

Twitter: SandyBanksLAT

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