Simon Calder column

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The Independent Online
The 1929 Warsaw Convention, which regulates international air travel, is such an important piece of legislation that even a ticketless airline such as EasyJet gives its passengers a slip of paper outlining the provisions. Look closely, though: the chief purpose of the treaty is to restrict the amount that can be claimed from an airline in the event of an accident.

I read the small print while waiting at Heathrow for a delayed Polish Airlines flight to, ironically, Warsaw. "Liability of the carrier for death or personal injury to passengers is limited in most cases to approximately $10,000 or $20,000 (pounds 6,000 or pounds 12,000)." The 68-year-old Convention, drafted in an age when air travel was far more primitive, offers a pitiably small figure for casualties; fortunately air accidents are so rare that the chances of ever being a victim of (a) a crash, and (b) the Warsaw Convention, are minuscule. It is much more likely that you will suffer from the other provisions of the agreement.

The flight to Warsaw eventually left about half an hour late - just tardy enough for me to miss my train connection to Poznan. As luck would have it, the departure board at the airport showed a Polish Airlines flight to Poznan. It cost pounds 50, but would, in theory, allow me to make up the lost time. Except that it left 90 minutes late.

So I wrote to Polish Airlines explaining that as a result of the plane's delay at Heathrow, I was out of pocket by another pounds 50 for an a even tardier flight. The airline's reply quoted Article 20 of the Convention: "A carrier is not responsible for changes of circumstances the carrier could not have foreseen eg weather condition [sic], traffic etc".

But, I protested, the reason the flight arrived 90 minutes late at Poznan was because Polish Airlines failed to provide a serviceable plane. That treaty came to the airline's rescue again: "A carrier may without notice cancel, terminate, divert, postpone or delay any flight with no future liability to the passenger." The phrase carte blanche springs to mind. In other words, the Warsaw Convention provides no real protection for consumers - beyond the right to choose another airline next time.

Polish Airlines provides a free magazine, called What, Where, When Warszawa. The tone of this publication is set by the cover, which promises Information for Tourists and Businessmen (my italics). The section "Warsaw at Night" covers just one club: "Arena opens at 8pm and delivers the goods until 4am. Any night of the week you witness at least three wrestling contests performed in front of you by professional as well as amateur WOMEN WRESTLERS (their capitals).

"What's more, the contestants fight in POOLS FILLED WITH MUD OR OIL. On top of that, you will enjoy NON-STOP STRIP-TEASE, which may also be performed at your table at your individual request." This Warsaw convention sounds even tackier than the one governing air transport.

"You ask in your column what to do with a stopover of a few hours at LAX," e-mails Alexander Kleanthous. "I had that problem last year. I was flying Auckland-Los Angeles-Heathrow with Qantas/BA. I don't sleep on planes, so I arrived after the long Auckland/LAX leg tired, with the prospect of a five-hour stopover and then the long LAX/LHR leg.

"I found that I had to clear US Immigration and customs (queues, of course, for both) then put my suitcase (already tagged through to LHR) back on a conveyor belt (another queue, of course). I exited to the arrivals area and made straight for the board on the wall showing airport hotels.

"I saw a card for the Wyndham Hotel, which looked comfortable and said it was closest to the airport (it was formerly a Marriott, I think, to give an idea of its standard). I called on the courtesy phone and they confirmed they could do a day room (it was around noon) for $60, less than pounds 40. I walked out of the door, and the shuttle bus was there immediately. Ten minutes later I was checked in and in a very comfortable room. I showered and went straight to sleep in an enormous bed for three hours. I woke up, watched some American football on the TV, ordered a burger and fries from room service (when in Rome ...) and had another shower before dressing in fresh clothes (packed in my carry-on luggage which I had with me).

"As Qantas and BA code-share, I already had my boarding pass for the LAX-LHR flight, so I didn't need to check in again, just go straight to the gate in time for boarding.

"This was a wonderfully stress-free (after getting through Customs!) way of spending my stopover and set me up for the second flight. The cost was reasonable, and I didn't need US dollars, as I paid on my card."