If the stub you get at the airport is “not the baggage check described in the Warsaw Convention,” what is?

Dear Cecil:

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?

Cecil replies:

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 cite 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 likely lose but even if you don’t the lawyers pocket most of the proceeds, you want the check for whatever pittance is left to be sent to you, the one who bought the ticket, not the mope 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.

One last detail

Dear Cecil:

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 established 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?

You dope, you’re thinking of the Warsaw Pact, the former Eastern bloc military alliance.  The Warsaw Convention of 1929, formally known as the Convention for the Unification of Certain Rules Relating to International Carriage by Air, predates Communist rule of Poland. In any case, this wasn’t the mysterious East imposing 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.

The Warsaw Convention limited airline liability for international flights, the argument being that huge settlements resulting from a few ill-timed accidents would strangle 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 mishaps involving domestic flights you, or your estate, can collect whatever your lawyer persuades a court to award.

Send questions to Cecil via cecil@straightdope.com.

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