"I've seen passengers and pilots and stewardesses struggling with luggage all over the country," Deborah Ratchford said the other day. "But the straw that broke the camel's back happened the summer. This lady was in a hurry at O'Hare Airport in Chicago, trying to fit three or four suitcases on a set of wheels and an elastic strap. The elastic snapped back all of a sudden and took the lady's eye out. That's when I said to myself, "There's got to be a better way."

Ratchford, a 25-year-old United Air Lines stewardess, found a better way, invented it, and recently deceived a patent for her efforts from the U.S. Patent Office.

In contrast to most portable luggage carriers already on the market - which usually weigh three to four pounds and consist of a lightweight steel spine, retractable handles, elastic straps and rubber wheels - Ratchford's creation weight only 10 ounces. It consists solely of an eight-inch, "J"-shapped aluminum hook that can be connected to several luggage handles at once, and a removable carriage containing for nylon-plastic wheels that can be attached to the base of the principal suitcase by an adhesive strip.

"I made sketches for the design last year after that incident at O'Hare, and put together a working model for myself by the end of the year," Ratchford said in her Arlington home. "It's all quite simple, really."

A D.C. native, Ratchford attended Central Missouri State College in Warrensburg, Mo., before signing as a flight attendant with United. Since 1973, she has logged "hundreds of thousands" of miles with United on coast-to-coast routes. She is negotiating business arrangements with various luggage companies for the manufacture and distribution of her invention.

"The business prospects are looking so wonderful," she said excitedly. "I may sign a contract with this one company that has stores all ver the country."

Ratchford calls June 13, the day her patent was approved, the most satisfying day in her life.

"I've invented the smallest and lightest luggage carrier in the world," she said. "You can put it in your tote bag or purse and not even know it's there.

"I go in airports all over the country and see passengers struggling with their suitcases, lugging them out of cabs through the terminal all the way up the staircases. What makes me feel so wonderful is that I've done something to help people out, something that's really needed.

"Plus," she said, "I'll be able to make a little money out of it. What can beat that".