Roslyn Lang pays $25 to check her small suitcase each time she travels on United Airlines. Although her bag could fit in the overhead compartment, she is 73 years old and can’t lift the suitcase, so she always checks her bag.

She isn’t complaining about the fee. Well, maybe a little.

You see, on her last United flight she dutifully paid the fee. While she waited to board the flight, the gate agents announced that the overhead bins were full and offered to gate-check bags for free. Essentially, other passengers’ carry-on bags were loaded underneath the plane right next to Lang’s — but for no fee.

We’ve all had this happen. Whether you checked bags or not, the airline decides it can’t accommodate bags in the passenger cabin and changes its strategy, offering free gate-checking at boarding. Is this loophole fair to passengers like Lang?

Lang thinks this procedure is discriminatory and goes so far as to call it “ageist.” After all, she says, younger passengers easily roll their bags to the gate without paying extra, then benefit from a service offered for a fee to others unable to do so.

I can see how this feels unfair. I do not have limited mobility, and I have had the same thought. Lang would like a refund of her checked bag fees and believes the solution is that the airlines should offer a free checked bag to seniors.

Now, wait a second. Is that fair?

Let’s be clear here — not every senior citizen is limited in his ability to lift a bag to the overhead compartment. Similarly, there are plenty of young passengers who for reasons of permanent disability or temporary injury are unable to do the same. Flight attendants are prohibited from lifting passenger bags, so it’s the passenger’s responsibility to stow the bag safely.

The Department of Transportation prohibits discriminatory practices toward Americans with disabilities, but nothing in the rules about providing assistance requires that a flight attendant stow baggage for a passenger.

While we’re talking about fairness, consider that the airlines began imposing checked bag fees in 2008 without lowering fares. In a move that seemed unfair to many passengers, the fee did not reflect any new or additional expenses related to baggage handling. And keep in mind, the fees on legacy carriers began at $15 and crept up to $25 for the first bag, where they remain today.

If checked bag fees are here to stay, and it appears they are, can we consider for a moment that the airlines did this backwards? Think about how our boarding scenarios would change if airlines allowed one free checked bag, with existing size and weight restrictions, and charged instead for the second bag, and the luxury and convenience of bringing carry-ons into the passenger cabin. Passengers would pack smartly, to get only the necessities into that one checked bag, and people would severely limit what they brought on board. TSA screening and boarding would be a breeze.

But let’s look at this from another perspective. Lang, who planned on checking her bag from the beginning, packed accordingly. All the passengers who didn’t check their bags (and let’s face it, on a domestic route, that’s most of the plane) are now being forced to check bags they planned on having in the overhead bin. These passengers now must remove electronics, which if damaged are excluded from coverage by the airline; medications, which they may need in the course of their travels; and valuables, which could be stolen. Suddenly these passengers are inconvenienced and have an added worry — whether they will see their bag at their destination.

Some gate-checked bags are returned to passengers planeside, but others are sent to the luggage carousel. If a passenger has a tight connection, he must now wait while the gate-checked bag resurfaces.

So, the last minute switcheroo by the airline can negatively affect any passenger, regardless of age or mobility.

Since Lang’s reason for checking her suitcase is her inability to lift it, should the airlines offer no-fee gate-checking for passengers with limited mobility? In that scenario, the passenger, like all others carrying on, would be limited by TSA content restrictions and would have to lug the bag from the front of the airport to the gate. A small, wheeled suitcase that is within the airline’s carry-on size restrictions would perhaps not pose a problem for Lang.

Airlines already allow no-fee gate-checking for parents of small children traveling with a stroller. Could this practice be extended to passengers like Lang? After all, TSA waives its shoe removal requirement for passengers over age 75.
Many passengers with limited mobility, especially those who use wheelchairs, report that air travel is so uncomfortable that they rarely — if ever — fly. While some may choose to stay home, others must travel, and airline policies and procedures should be designed to fairly accommodate all passengers.

The question, of course, is will they?

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