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The Straight Dope



Whenever I take an airplane trip and check my bags they hand me this little ticket, and on the back it says, "This is not the baggage check described in the Warsaw Convention." Funny, it sure looks to ME like a baggage check. If it's not a baggage check, what is it? And what do you have to do to get a REAL baggage check? --Bill Kinnersley

You've already got one. Look on the back of your airline ticket. It says, "PASSENGER TICKET AND BAGGAGE CHECK." I know, doesn't look like a baggage check, doesn't act like a baggage check. Tough. In modern commerce, lawyers rule. According to the Warsaw Convention (see below), possession of the baggage check/ticket legally entitles you to possession of whatever belongings you handed over temporarily (you hope) to the airline pursuant thereto. As a practical matter you also need the little cardboard stubs with the numbers on them (the ones that claim they're not baggage checks, appearances to the contrary) to satisfy the guard at the exit from the baggage claim area. But the stubs are merely an administrative convenience. When the airline loses that duffel bag you packed the gold bars in, and you make a claim, and they deny it, citing the limitation of liability rules that aren't stated (clearly, anyway) on the back of the ticket but that you have to mail in to get, and you're outraged and take the case to the Supreme Court--and whether you win or not the lawyers wind up with 99 and 44/100ths of the proceeds--you want the check for the $0.15 left over to be sent to you, the one who bought the ticket, not the yope who picked up the cardboard stub you threw on the floor in disgust when they lost your bag in the first place, right? Right. So don't let a little incongruous terminology upset you.

While waiting for a delayed flight I amused myself reading the fine print on the back of my airline ticket. There I saw a bunch of rules set by the "Warsaw Convention." Didn't that go away with the fall of the Soviet Union? Why did we let the commies make rules for air travel? --Mark Iwashika, Dallas

You goof, you're thinking of the Warsaw Pact, the former Eastern-bloc military alliance. Or maybe Warsaw, Indiana. Whatever, the Warsaw Convention of 1929, formally known as the Convention for the Unification of Certain Rules Relating to International Carriage by Air, wasn't an attempt by the Comintern to impose its will on the rest of the world. Rather, it was the nascent air-transport industry and its government allies imposing their will on you, Joe and Joan Consumer.

The Warsaw Convention limits airline liability for international flights, the argument having been that huge settlements resulting from a few ill-timed accidents would have strangled the then-infant industry in its cradle. (In fairness, the convention also guaranteed you'd get at least something if you crashed in a flaky jurisdiction.) The complaint over the years has been that the limitation is pathetically low, currently $10,000 or $20,000 per person depending on circumstances. Efforts to negotiate a higher rate have foundered on disagreement on just how high to make it. Intercarrier agreements have raised the limits in many cases, for example to $75,000 per person for flights having a stop in the U.S., still none too generous. Note that this applies only to international flights. For domestic flights the sky, so to speak, is the limit.

Is it not possible for automobile manufacturers to design and install a passenger's side rearview mirror in which objects are NOT closer than they appear? This all-but-useless fun-house feature of modern automobile design seems simple to correct. (Hint: substitute the driver's side mirror for the passenger's side mirror . . . voila!) --Timothy Hurley, Hampstead, Maryland

Now, now. The fun-house mirror is supposed to be a safety feature. The mirror's convex surface gives you a wider angle of view to help overcome the notorious right-side blind spot. Inevitably, the wider the view, the smaller the objects in it, giving the false impression that said objects are more distant than they are. That's a danger, but with practice you can compensate for it. There's no compensating for objects you can't see at all, the fatal flaw, maybe literally, with using a flat mirror as you suggest.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustraton/Slug Signorino.

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