Where does unclaimed baggage end up?

Never leave your luggage alone at the airport. (Shutterstock)

Never leave your luggage alone at the airport. (Shutterstock)

JOHN SMITH, Special to QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 9:52 AM ET

For many of us, one of the fears of flying is the worry of losing our luggage.

We've all heard "horror stories" of travellers arriving at exotic destinations or important business conferences without their bag -- with no clean underwear or socks or any change of clothes!

Statistics, however, show that more than 99% of airport luggage does actually get connected to its rightful owner (most of it directly upon arrival -- and some of it redirected a few days later). When you consider the volume of baggage winging its way around the world, the airlines are actually doing a terrific job.

But what about that less than 1% of luggage that's never traced back to the rightful owner?

Well, a settlement is eventually paid out, usually after 90 days, and then many airlines sell the bags to the Unclaimed Baggage Centre in Scottsboro, Ala. (The centre has an exclusive contract with all U.S. airlines since 1970). The contents are then sorted, cleaned and redistributed: About a third is thrown away, another third is given away, and the remaining third is priced and sold in the warehouse.

I recently checked out the unique 40,000 sq.-ft. warehouse in Scottsboro, and discovered it's a popular destination for die-hard shoppers and bargain hunters.

There were racks of good quality skirts, suits, shirts, shoes, lingerie, jewelry, luggage, toys, cameras, books, electronics, sporting goods, etc., usually priced 20% to 80% off the manufacturer's suggested price. As all the clothes are cleaned before being sold, the centre also has a huge dry cleaning operation.

I was there on "Roll Out Tuesday," when new items are brought out all day long. These items also include unclaimed freight and cargo (in addition to the lost bags).

While there, I talked with Brenda Cantrell, "brand ambassador" for the Unclaimed Baggage Centre, who told me "there are about 7,000 new items put out every day." One of their most popular sales is the annual Winter Ski Event, Cantrell says.

"People camp out all night to be near the first of the line -- to find the best selection."

She also explained that the lost luggage is purchased by the pound (sight unseen), so the contents then belong to them.

Some "creative packaging" has been discovered over the years, particularly by travellers trying to hide money, jewelry or drugs. Illegal substances are turned over to the authorities, and such items as lost glasses and wheelchairs are given to hospitals, nursing homes, etc., Cantrell says, adding that other unique finds, including wedding gowns and wedding rings, are resold at the centre.

CANADIAN AIRLINES

Each Canadian airline is responsible for its lost luggage, so passengers whose bags don't arrive should file a missing luggage report before leaving the airport.

Agents at central offices will eventually receive and open any misdirected luggage, searching for name tags and addresses. If there's no identification, the contents will eventually be given to charity, after every attempt has been made to connect the rightful owner and luggage.

TREASURE HUNTING

Visiting the Unclaimed Baggage Centre is like going on a treasure hunt. You never know what you'll find there on any particular day. Some of the best bargains have included a tuxedo bought for $500 and valued at $3,000, a vase purchased for $60 and later appraised at $18,000, and a Barbie doll stuffed with a roll of $500 bills.

UNIQUE DISCOVERIES

These have included a suitcase full of cheese, a 19th-century replica of a suit of armour, Egyptian artifacts, a 40.95 carat emerald and a live rattlesnake!

LOST & FOUND

There's even a verified case of lost property being found at the centre by the rightful owner. A woman lost a pair of ski boots and was reimbursed for this loss; two years later, her husband found them on sale (for $45) in the warehouse, bought them, and returned them to her (the woman's initials were still visible in the tongue of the boot).

TIP

Don't pack valuables in your luggage. Take medication in your carry on back. Place your name and address inside your bag, too, because the outside tag could fall off.

NEED TO KNOW

Located in northeast Alabama, the Unclaimed Baggage Center is about a three-hour drive from Atlanta and a two-hour drive from Birmingham. From Huntsville, Ala., head east on route No. 72 to Scottsboro, and then go north on No. 35. For information, see unclaimedbaggage.com.


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