Where does your unclaimed luggage end up?

The moment of truth: Did the bags arrive?
Jay Directo/AFP/Getty Images

You've watched the luggage carousel spin around countless times. Your bag, however, has yet to show its generic, navy blue face. It's gone -- one of the many bags "mishandled" by airlines annually. And although most baggage is returned to passengers within 24 hours, some languishes in airports and warehouses before carriers declare it officially lost. But where does the truly unclaimed luggage go?

What happens to the wrinkle-proof suits, the much-regretted cameras and the occasional Egyptian artifact? They eventually end up in Scottsboro, Ala., at the Unclaimed Baggage Center, where they're sold to the public at bargain-basement prices.

Airport Image Gallery

­The U.S. Department of Transportation reported that airlines mishandled 3.39 out of every 1,000 bags in 2011 [source: DOT]. Most carriers define a mishandled bag as delayed, lost, stolen or damaged. Passengers with delayed bags are relatively lucky: Their belongings are usually only a flight behind them. Even those with lost luggage usually see their bags again. Airlines spend a considerable amount of effort tracking down owners of unclaimed luggage -- they even use clues from inside the bag when the outer tags are gone. But some luggage, no matter how carefully the carrier tries to trace it, is irretrievably lost.

­Airlines usually keep unclaimed luggage around the terminal where it was found for about five days before shipping it to a central warehouse. After about 60 days in storage, carriers donate the bags to charity or sell them to salvage.

The Unclaimed Baggage Center buys luggage from airlines with the contents site unseen. Clothing makes up about 60 percent of the millions of items that pass through the ­store annually. Cameras, electronics, sporting goods, jewelry, glasses, books and luggage help keep the constantly rotating shelves fully stocked. The Unclaimed Baggage Center founders, Doyle and Sue Owens, started their business by selling unclaimed Greyhound bus luggage in 1970. Now the store covers a city block and sells unclaimed cargo in addition to their staple of lost airline baggage.

So what makes people fly across the country to root through someone else's lost baggage? In the next section we'll learn about some unusual finds in Scottsboro and how you can avoid losing your own luggage.

Treasures of the Unclaimed Baggage Center

To avoid losing your luggage, label your bags inside and out.
To avoid losing your luggage, label your bags inside and out.
Scott Olson/Getty Images

When a lost suitcase or backpack arrives at the Unclaimed Baggage Center, employees remove all clothing for laundering and search every zippered pocket and corner crevice for treasures. Their diligence pays: In addition to Egyptian artifacts from 1500 B.C. (which included a shrunken head), employees have uncovered a 40.95 carat emerald, a 5.8 carat diamond and a Muppet from the movie "Labyrinth."

Some items are so valuable and unusual, you might wonder what happened to the person who lost them. The Unclaimed Baggage Center has returned an F-16 guidance system to the U.S. Navy and a space shuttle camera to NASA.

While the store keeps its stranger finds in a small museum, most items sell for 50-80 percent below retail value. The constantly changing stock makes the Unclaimed Baggage Center one of Alabama's major tourist destinations. The store donates what it can't sell -- giving clothing to the homeless and baby strollers to teen pregnancy centers.

Customers certainly get a good deal at the Unclaimed Baggage Center, but how much do airlines make from selling lost luggage? Although the store and carriers keep their negotiations private, the bargain prices suggest airlines receive very little. And, in fact, they start at a loss. Passengers with mishandled luggage on a domestic flight can file claims reports and receive up to $3,000 from the airline responsible. Do not, however, expect to receive the full amount. Airlines sometimes ask for receipts to back up claims and may refuse liability if you checked in late. The Montreal Convention determines liability for international trips originating in the United States or in other ratifying countries. The Convention limits liability to 1,000 "Special Drawing Rights," an international reserve asset that fluctuates based on several currencies.

To learn more about unclaimed luggage, baggage handling and airlines, carry on to the next page.

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  • The Unclaimed Baggage Center. http://www.unclaimedbaggage.com/index.html