WHERE DOES LOST AIRLINE LUGGAGE GO
That leaves .5% of the luggage that are "mishandled". The definition of mishandled is that they do not arrive with the passenger, arrive damaged or arrive with missing items.
Doing the math: .5% of two million equals 10,000 bags a day.
The Department of Transportation claims that 80% of the mishandled bags are reunited with their owner within 24 hours and 99% are returned within 5 days. Only 1% are lost forever.
But, 1% still equals about 100 bags per day and 36,500 a year. Where did they go?
Scottsboro, Alabama is the lost luggage capital of the world. It is the home of the Unclaimed Baggage Center where you can buy a lost $1000 Versace dress for $55, a tube of slightly used Japanese toothpaste for 50 cents, a $15,000 sapphire and diamond bracelet for $7500, gold wedding bands for half their value, and a black lace teddy for $3.
Why do bags get lost?
The airlines say late check-in is the number one reason because the luggage may not be loaded on the same airplane as the passenger. Second, bags get lost when passengers are making connections even if they are traveling with the same airline. Bags can be tagged erroneously at the airport and end up at the wrong destination. Tags get ripped off and there is no name and address to be found inside or outside the bag. Sometimes the bags are stolen.
Chances of permanently losing your bag can be reduced by putting the name and address tags on the inside and the outside of bag, checking in on-time and keeping valuables with you. Or, travel light and only take carry-on luggage with you.
If a bag is missing, the traveler should immediately file a lost baggage statement with the airline. Chances are good the bag will show up within 24 hours. While you are waiting, the airlines will usually give some kind of compensation- say $25 or so to replace incidentals like toiletries. But, they are not required to.
It is usually 90 days before any airline will declare a piece of luggage truly lost. An airline's maximum liability is $9.07 a pound. But, instead of weighing each piece, they assume that it weighs the maximum of 70 pounds that it will accept. They round off the amount and pay $640 a bag.
All luggage the major airlines cannot find the owners are sold to a salvage company- Unclaimed Baggage Center. It is sent to Scottsboro where the luggage is opened and the contents are sorted, cleaned and priced. They have a staff of appraisers who determine the original value of the items then apply a set discount. All items are then put on display and sold to the public.
And the public loves it. The Unclaimed Baggage Center has become the number one tourist attraction in Alabama with over 800,000 visitors a year. They come partly for the bargains and part for the entertainment value of peeking into someone else's stuff. Kind of like looking through your party host's medicine cabinet.
Why does lost airline luggage end up in Scottsboro, Alabama?
It all started in 1970, when an insurance salesman named H. Doyle Owens borrowed $300 and a pickup truck and bought a hundred or so bags left on Greyhound buses. He brought them back to Scottsboro, a town with a population of about 15,000, and sold them off card tables.
For Owens it was just a part-time business until 1978. Now the Unclaimed Baggage Center covers an entire city block- 50,000 square feet, employs 110 workers, has a cafe and stays open Monday thru Saturday.
When they first started, they sold the suitcases and the entire contents sight unseen. They charged about $15-$20. Some people found cash. Some found valuable jewelry.
As the business grew, they started opening up the suitcases and processing the contents. About 1,000,000 items a year are put on sale on the floor of the Unclaimed Baggage Center.
Sixty percent of the items sold are clothing. All clothing is cleaned and pressed in one of the largest laundry facilities in the state. Racks and racks of clothes cover the main floor of the store. There are shelves of books, racks of CDs, baskets of Walkman's and inexpensive cameras, and a jewelry counter. Sporting goods line the wall on one end of the store. Unclaimed cargo fills a room on the other side.
If you get tired of shopping you can sit in the cafe and have a cup of Starbucks coffee. Or, you can visit the tiny museum displaying some of their rarest and strangest finds. A puppet from a Jim Henson movie. A 1770 violin. A Stetson hat signed "To Brent from Muhammad Ali 9/22/88".
The supply comes not only from unclaimed passenger bags, but unclaimed airfreight and items from airport lost and founds. People leave a lot of rings in the bathrooms.
Bryan Owens bought the company from his mother and father in 1995. He says, "It's a little bit like Christmas every day, we get these bags that come in and we never know what we will find."
The airlines will not admit that they do business with Unclaimed Baggage Center. If you ask, they will only say that their mishandled bags are sold to a salvage company. Owens has a written agreement with the airlines to not disclose from whom he buys the merchandise or for how much. But, he says "Everyone in the airline industry knows us," and he will admit that he doesn't have any competition.
What if someone should show up in Scottsboro and find something that belonged to them? Could they lay claim?
"Theoretically, their claim would have been settled and they would have already been paid for their loss," Owens says. "They would have to buy it back. It's an arm's length transaction for us. We just provide a necessary service. We're capitalists."
Unclaimed Baggage Center doesn't promote itself except for maybe a few brochures available at Alabama rest stops or on its website. They mostly rely on word-of-mouth and free listings in tourist's guides.
Do people feel bad buying things that other people have lost?
"Yes. But I think they go through the process of trying to find the rightful owner. If I felt I was taking someone else's stuff, I wouldn't like that. offered" one customer. Another says, "I truly don't care. I know they've been reimbursed. It's like looking for treasure. You never know what you'll find."
The company never knows what they will find when they open a suitcase. They have found Egyptian art and one time found a live rattlesnake.
After thinking about it, a business like this makes complete sense, but who would ever imagine it would be located in such an out of the way place or that a family could become rich from something they started on card tables.
Now, where is it that all the missing socks lost in the dryer go?
copyright 2008 Michael Dunn