Flying into retirement

After completing flight attendant training in 1967, Kassie Rients, far right, and some fellow trainees visited with Santa Claus at Southdale Center in Edina. Submitted photo
After completing flight attendant training in 1967, Kassie Rients, far right, and some fellow trainees visited with Santa Claus at Southdale Center in Edina. Submitted photo

Burnsville flight attendant logs nearly 46 years

When Kassie Rients became a flight attendant in 1967, her supervisors did pre-flight “girdle checks,” attendants signed contracts to keep their weight down, and job applicants had to show more than initiative.

“We had to lift our skirts and walk across the room so the interviewer could see our legs,” said Rients, of Burnsville. “All the airlines did that.”

Her nearly 46-year career encompassed a lifetime of social change, from the end of discriminatory work practices to the introduction of emergency biohazard suits on airliners.

Rients also learned a nifty trick for cleaning up after sick passengers.

But as she completed her last flight for Delta Air Lines – a Dec. 17 round-tripper between Minneapolis and Los Angeles – Rients focused on good friends and family members, about 30 of whom marked her final arrival with a festive sendoff at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport.

“I’m going to miss it terribly, because I love interacting with people,” said Rients, 66, who was greeted with balloons, signs, a pink sash and an honorary wheelchair for disembarking.

“I have no regrets,” she said. “It’s just been a wonderful career. I’ve always loved it.”

Rients took advantage of a buyout offer from Delta (formerly Northwest), something she’d spurned in the past. Now she wants to relax and travel with her husband, Jerry, 76, who worked as a barber for 56 years. The couple, who have a blended family of six children, also teach confirmation classes at St. John the Baptist Catholic Church in Savage.

“I wanted to make it to 50 years,” she said, “but the buyout was really a nice offer, and a couple funerals changed my mind – two fight attendant friends that died that never really got to (enjoy) their pensions.”
Another era

Raised in Philadelphia, Pa., Rients tried engineering school for a while and was working in a bank when a female colleague told her about her experience as a flight attendant for Northwest Airlines, also known as Northwest Orient.

“She had to retire because she got married,” Rients said. “You couldn’t be married, you couldn’t be engaged and you couldn’t have children.”

Rients was flown to Minneapolis on a 707 – her first plane ride – to interview with Northwest. She began work two weeks after a new contract with attendants ended the airline’s practice of forced retirement at age 32, Rients said.

“That was the norm” in the industry, she said.

At 5 foot 9, Rients signed a contract that limited her weight to 138 pounds.

“Girls ate baby food to make their weight checks,” she recalled. “You had two weeks to lose it, whatever the amount was. … We got weight checks twice a year when we had uniform changeovers, or whenever they felt like it. But never for the men.”

The onboard “pursers” –  the equivalent of today’s flight leaders – were men with little more training than the flight attendants but much bigger paychecks, Rients said.

She credits much of the change in airline workplace practices to the employment discrimination case of Mary Pat Laffey vs. Northwest Airlines. The case, initiated in 1968, involved a Northwest flight attendant who was turned down for a purser’s job, Rients said.

The case wound through the courts until 1984, and change began arriving in the 1970s, Rients said.

“They kind of eased up on the weight checks,” she said.
Tricks of the trade

Rients said she’s been “thrown up on more times than I can count” and is unfazed by vomit. Premeasured coffee bags have proved invaluable.

“If you took the coffee bag and broke it and threw it onto the vomit, then it killed the odor immediately,” she said. “And you kind of felt you were just scraping up chunks of coffee.”

She recalled one instance of “chain reaction” air sickness when lightning struck a 707 she was flying to Chicago. It sounded like an explosion.

One man’s shirt was so badly soiled she washed it herself, Rients said.

“That was before rubber gloves,” she noted, adding that most flight attendants wear them when busing trash.

Air sickness and passengers’ unfamiliarity with Western toilets were problems aboard a half dozen refugee flights she worked after the fall of Saigon in 1975, she said. South Vietnamese refugees were being flown from Guam to a California Air Force base.

Her training over the years covered topics from CPR and basic first aid to extinguishing fires caused by overheated laptop batteries.

Once aboard a DC-10 she helped prepare the passengers for a landing emergency, but the suspect landing gear held up and a belly landing was avoided.

“But that’s the other beauty of flight attendants,” said Rients, who flew internationally for more than 20 years, mostly to Tokyo. “It’s a sister- and brotherhood that is like no other. … We all have the same training, and every person who’s ever been in an emergency has said that it just automatically kicks in.”

Passengers became more aggressive and demanding over the years, despite a brief post-9/11 calming, Rients said. Some are so absorbed in their headphones they’re hard to communicate with.

Back in the day, “We wore hats and gloves, and everybody had manners. Now we wear rubber gloves and take self-defense classes. It’s a different world.”

After nearly 46 years of flying, Rients said she’s No. 10 in seniority among Delta’s flight attendants at the Minneapolis-St. Paul hub and No. 90 companywide.

“What I loved about it was every day was different,” Rients said. “Every day was exciting. When you see two- to four-hundred people a day, there might be something that happens in back of the airplane that the people in the front didn’t even know happened.”

One of her most vivid memories is of a panic-stricken teenage boy telling her the baby boa constrictor he’d carried onto the plane had disappeared from his pocket.

“We did make an announcement to the people,” Rients said, noting that a pocketed snake could never board a plane with today’s heightened gate security. “Everyone was looking around. And we never did find it.”