Lifting Heavy Luggage: Whose Job Is It?

Imagine this: You have a disabling spinal injury which makes it painful to lift anything including your carry-on bag. So you politely explain the situation to the flight attendant and ask for help.

Her response: "If I helped everyone do that all day then my back would be killing me!"

Now, no flight attendant would ever say that, right? Well, according to a 29-year old disabled woman known only as Rachel D. who shared this story on her blog, that is what a United Airlines flight attendant told her. We could not get any definitive confirmation from the airline, but according to United's Twitter feed (and to its credit) the airline took the allegation seriously enough to investigate.

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Overhead Bins Backlash

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And according to Rachel D., United ultimately issued her an apology and thanked her for "shining a light" on this subject.

But since you, dear reader, are not disabled why should you care? Well, if we're all lucky, we will grow old. And age has a funny way of slowing people down and limiting their mobility. You've seen those elderly folks on the plane, patiently waiting for their wheelchairs, right? Someday, that could be you.

According to 2007 U.S. Census Bureau figures, nearly 12 million people in this country use a wheelchair, walker, cane or crutches to get around. And no doubt you've seen some of these folks in the air with you.

Mercifully, most of them don't seem to have horror stories like Rachel D.'s, but there are little indignities that must be borne even when airlines are doing everything according to the letter of the law.

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For example, passengers in wheelchairs are typically first-on and last-off the plane, which made for a frightening experience for the elderly mother of one of my employees after a coast-to-coast flight a couple of years ago. Once the plane landed, the woman sat and waited while all the passengers deplaned ahead of her, and then she watched as all the flight attendants departed as well. Where was her wheelchair? "Coming," she was told.

Fortunately, just as the pilot was getting ready to leave, he noticed the woman sitting there all alone and made some calls on her behalf. Then he sat down and waited with her, until the wheelchair finally arrived -- about 15 minutes after the plane had emptied out.

That could have been your mother or even you.

I'm happy to say I've talked with other disabled people who've had mostly positive experiences with a wide variety of airlines, including United. Take "Daniel" for example (he didn't want his real name used); this Dallas-area data base administrator who works with computers suffered from polio as a child and uses two crutches (and occasionally, a wheelchair) to move about.

"My disability is an obvious one, because of my crutches," said Daniel, and he adds that, "Flight attendants and fellow passengers always lend a hand if I need help with a carry-on or my small backpack."

He suspects the reason Rachel D. got the response she did is because her youth and the "hidden" nature of her disability, which apparently doesn't immediately label her as someone needing assistance or as the stereotypical "disabled person," whatever that is.

Or maybe the flight attendant she ran into simply didn't understand the situation or just had a bad day. It happens to all of us.

In fairness, flight attendants sometimes have to put up with a lot, and bags can be a big part of that. According to a report from the Association of Flight Attendants issued last month, 80 percent of flight attendants have reported strains and sprains from hoisting overweight or overstuffed carry-on bags into overhead bins not to mention the cuts and bruises suffered when items burst out of these bags.

And yet, for passengers with disabilities, assistance with stowing and retrieving bags in bins is supposed to be available to them: it says so on United's website, it says so on American's site, on Delta's site, and on and on. Why? Because it's the law.

This particular law, referred to as the Department of Transportation's "Air Carrier Access" rules, was published just months before the Americans with Disabilities Act of was signed into law by President George H.W. Bush and these rules spells out the rights of disabled air passengers.

Quick true or false: The airlines allow people with disabilities to travel with a service dog, in the cabin, free of charge.

Answer: Actually, this is a requirement of the Air Carrier Access rules, which the airlines are obliged to follow; by the way, the service animal cannot block the aisle (although I've yet to see one of these good-natured, hard-working dogs do so).

What else you can find in a guide to the Air Carrier Access rules, in a handy DOT publication called, "New Horizons."

This sentence, which explains how the airlines must provide training on "passengers with disabilities" for all of their employees who deal with the traveling public: "This training…will be designed to help the employee understand the special needs of these travelers, and how they can be accommodated quickly, safely, and with dignity.:

With dignity. That's the key. I mean, isn't that how all of us should treat each other all the time?

This work is the opinion of the columnist and does not reflect the opinion of ABC News.

Rick Seaney is one of the country's leading experts on airfare, giving interviews and analysis to news organizations including ABC News, the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, Reuters, the Associated Press and Bloomberg. His Web site, FareCompare.com, offers consumers free, new-generation software, combined with expert insider tips to find the best airline ticket deals.