For 51 years the Warsaw Convention, the treaty that governs liability in international air travel, has survived wars, jet planes and changing world politics.
Then, two and a half weeks ago in a sleepy courtroom in Upper Marlboro, it ran into Judge Louis DiTrani.
Angered when Air India, in his view, did not adequately compensate a College Park couple for losing their baggage, DiTrani, a county district court judge -- the lowest ranking judge in Mayland -- declared the treaty to be unconstitutioal.
Air India, he said, should have paid the couple according to the true value of their luggage, not simply $20 per kilo, as the Warsaw Convention prescribes. So he ordered the airline to pay the couple $2,000 -- nearly 10 times what it had originally proposed -- and then directed a few pointed remarks in the direction of the airline's highpriced lawyers.
"I dread to think," said DiTrani, "that an airline has the privilege to just toss out your bag, help themselves to what they want, ship your empty bag . . . and then treat you like a complete nincompoop."
DiTrani's ruling stunned Air India, which is trying to decide whether to appeal or quietly pay the $2,000. If they appeal the case and lose, DiTrani's ruling would become a precedent.
"Other countries already look upon our courts with suspicion" said Benjamin Lamberton, the airline's general counsel. "This decision will make them think our court system is crazy."
Alarmed federal officials also are watching the case closely, and a Justice Department spokesman said the department's civil division would "certainly" enter the case on Air Inia's behalf if there is an appeal.
The case began three years ago when Henry Eifert, a College Park builder, and his wife Joan flew to London on a business trip and, upon arrival, discovered that their baggage had been lost. Later some of the bags were found, but much of the contents was missing.
Among the missing items were some important documents needed to complete a multimillion dollar deal. Without the documents, Eifert claimed, the deal fell through. His wife also lost a lot of expensive clothing.
When the Eiferts filed a claim with Air India, the airline agreed to pay according to the weight of the missing baggage -- a sum amounting to about $200. The couple did not think it was enough, so they decided to go to court.
"It was my wife's idea to sue," Eifert said last week. "I went along not because I had so much faith in the system, but because I had a hell of a lot of faith in my wife.
Air India's attorneys argued that the Eiferts had been adequately compensated under the terms of the Warsaw Convention, the often-challenged treaty that limits the amount of money an airline must pay survivors of crashes or passengers who lose their luggage. They pointed out that the convention is a longstanding agreement -- enacted in 1929 and signed by 100 nations -- and that its terms are spelled out on the back of every interational airline ticket.
DiTrani was not impressed. He said the airline should either change its method of compensation, or give passengers better warning.
"It may be on the ticket," he said, "and that may be the law between nations, but I don't think that you can take from the constitutional rights of individuals . . . I find the (treaty) unconsttutional."
He then proceeded to award the Eiferts $2,000 -- nearly 10 times what the airline had offered.
"There is not a similar holding anywhere in the United States," the lawyer for Air India protested.
"Well, that may be," the judge replied. "There's always a first time."
He added that he did not think a "normal, average passenger would understand what the Warsaw Convention is about. Indeed, most Americans don't understand what a kilo weight is."
In an interview, DeTrani recalled that he had once lost his own $200 suitcase while serving in the Mideast in the Air Force, and sympathized with the couples plight.
There might be some solace for Air India, however. Court observers say that though Judge DiTrani in effect had declared the entire treaty void, he apparently was referring only to the section concerning luggage liability.