What happens to your lost luggage at airports?

If you’ve lost your suitcase or bag on a plane or in an airport, there’s a good chance its contents will end up in this place: a huge shopping mall in the USA run by a family of Americans who redeem lost luggage and resell thousands of items of clothing. Discover this unique place.

If you’ve ever wondered where your lost luggage ends up on a plane or in an airport on American soil, there’s good reason to think it’s in Alabama. Specifically in the Unclaimed Baggage Center, a retail store filled with treasures found in bags misplaced by hapless travelers.

For decades, this center has discreetly purchased unclaimed bags and carry-on luggage that airlines have kept for at least 90 days (after which they legally become the property of the airline). The sprawling warehouse in the small town of Scottsboro, Alabama, covers 4,600 square meters, and stocks some 6,000 to 7,000 new items daily, 85% of which come from lost luggage. The rest comes from unclaimed freight, which the company also buys.

You might think that, for such a gigantic store to remain constantly stocked, there must be an epidemic of lost luggage. In reality, only 0.5% to 1% of luggage is lost. What’s more, airlines are losing less and less of your luggage. There are so many air passengers in the USA that even a fraction of a percentage of all bags carried by airlines is enough to fill the giant store. Last year, for example, 850 million passengers traveled to and from U.S. airports. Unclaimed Baggage Center sends its trucks all over the country to collect orphaned bags.

A nice, discreet business

The company got its start in 1970 when founder Doyle Owens borrowed a pickup truck and paid $300 for his first load of unclaimed luggage, which he promptly sold. Today Unclaimed Baggage Center dominates the market, with no competitors. « We have exclusive contracts with domestic carriers in the U.S., » explains Brenda Cantrell, the company’s brand ambassador.

unclaimed baggage center, Alabama

Photo credit: NBC News

Unclaimed Baggage Center does not disclose how much it pays for a bag, or the names of the airlines it works with. None of the airlines have confirmed that they sell to the company. The company buys all the luggage that the airlines have failed to return to their owners. But the airlines still lose money because they spend a lot of time and money trying to find the people to whom the luggage belongs.

Blind shopping

Unclaimed Baggage Center buys everything « blind », i.e. without seeing the contents of the bags in advance. In a way, the company is taking a gamble. But the risk seems to be paying off, as the store sells electronics, jewelry, sporting goods, small home furnishings and lots and lots of clothes. Products are sold at 20-80% below market prices. The company donates, throws away or recycles what it doesn’t want, then sets a selling price for the rest.

Clothing accounts for around 60% of the store, being the thing people most often take on their travels. Everything is washed or dry-cleaned before being put up for sale; Unclaimed Baggage Center being one of the largest laundries in Alabama.

How do I get there?

Unclaimed Baggage Center is located at 509 West Willow Street, Scottsboro, Alabama, USA(Show on a map). Open Monday to Friday 9am to 6pm and Saturday 8am to 7pm. Tel: +1 256 259 1525 – www.unclaimedbaggage.com

Where can you find your lost luggage in France?

In France, unclaimed baggage is kept at the airport where it was found for around a month, after which it is considered lost. After this period, orphaned baggage in the Paris region is sent to the lost and found center at rue des Morillons in Paris.

Items valued at less than €100 are shredded after three months. Those estimated to be worth more than €100 are donated to charities or second-hand dealers.

Main photo credit: Flickr – William Cho