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Here's What Happens to the Luggage You Lose at the Airport

If your bag goes missing while you're traveling, it will probably get returned to you within a few weeks—or it may wind up at the Unclaimed Baggage Center in Scottsboro, Alabama.

by Arielle Pardes
Dec 23 2014, 2:50pm

Photo via Flickr Kenneth Lu

If you're left standing at an empty baggage claim carousel with nothing in your hands after flying home for the holidays, you are very, very unlucky. You already knew that, of course, but the statistics bear it out—according to the Department of Transportation's latest Air Travel Consumer Report, fewer than 1 percent of passengers report missing bags. But that's not much consolation to people with lost luggage, who are usually in for a bit of a wait.

In almost all cases, a misplaced suitcase will turn up within a few weeks. If it doesn't, then it will almost certainly show up within three months. If it still doesn't, there's a chance it will turn up years later (one woman's suitcase turned up 20 years after she lost it). But a very, very small percentage of bags can't be matched up with their owners and are considered lost forever. Some of these orphaned suitcases wind up in Scottsboro, Alabama, at the Unclaimed Baggage Center.

It's the only store in America that buys—and then resells—the luggage you lose at airports. Most of its stock is made up of ordinary things people pack in their suitcases: toiletries, clothes, neck pillows. It also sells the extraordinary things found in peoples' luggage—shrunken heads, a full zebra skin (ears, tail, and all), a container of vacuum-packed frogs—without judgment. (There are a few recovered items that don't make it to the sales floor, like a camera from a NASA space shuttle and an urn of someone's ashes.)

Brenda Cantrell, brand ambassador for the store, told me that employees put between 5,000 and 7,000 new items on the shelves every day—and those are just the items suitable for resale. Cantrell wouldn't specify exactly how many suitcases they get each day, but it must be several hundred each month for them to have that kind of a stock in their store. (Although airlines lose luggage a lot less frequently than they did a few years ago, there were still some 21.8 million bags mishandled last year.)

Most of the things that Unclaimed Baggage Center employees find in suitcases are replaceable—the shop receives so many pieces of clothing, for instance that it owns the largest dry cleaning facility in all of Alabama, where more than 50,000 garments are laundered each month). But there are other items, like wedding dresses and pieces of art and one-of-a-kind artifacts, that give the place a kind of tragic air. I asked Cantrell if anyone had ever come into the Unclaimed Baggage Center in pursuit of something they'd lost.

"There has been only one documented case of someone finding something they had previously lost," she said. "One man came and bought a pair of ski boots for his wife, and when he gave them to her, she noticed a marking on them that indicated they were the same ones she had lost."

In the United Kingdom, lost pieces of luggage are sold in blind auctions. The contents of each suitcase are sorted through before they're sold (and, in most cases, anything super valuable or super personal is taken out) but then they're zipped back up and sold to the highest bidder. By all accounts, these suitcases are normally filled with junk—or, more often, just musty clothes—but every now and then, you'll scoop up a bag for $20 with a gem inside. Sometimes there's money tucked inside hidden pockets; sometimes there's a boring but pricey item, like an air mattress; sometimes there's stuff that's just weird, like exotic spices or moose antlers.

"There's no rhyme or reason to what people pack," said Christine Sachett, who runs an auction house that sells baggage lost from Heathrow Airport, in an interview with the Daily Mail. "I've opened cases containing used saucepans. Why would you bother taking those anywhere?"

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