Where do bags go after the TSA takes them?
They go to Alabama, writes intrepid and daring sock smuggler Dan Lewis.
Air travel comes with a risk that, although mathematically rare, seems all too common: lost luggage. According to Conde Nast Traveler, U.S. carriers handle 400 million checked bags a year, and as many as 2 million bags are lost each year from domestic U.S. flights alone. That’s a small percentage—about half a percent—and most misplaced bags are reunited with their owners within forty-eight hours. Within five days, 95 percent of those 2 million bags will find themselves back home.
But a small percentage—and we’re talking 50,000 to 100,000—sit idly, never to find their way back home. What happens to these bags? They go to Alabama. Scottsboro, Alabama, is a small city of just under 15,000 people, tucked away in the northeast corner of the state, thirty miles or so from the Georgia and Tennessee borders. Every year, about a million visitors come to this tiny city, the vast majority of whom come to visit the Unclaimed Baggage Center. This 50,000-square- foot store sells the things that flyers lost and were unable to recover.
When an airline loses your bags, federal law requires them to try to find them for you. Typically, the airlines are successful at doing so. But not always. After the lost bag has sat for ninety days unclaimed (or its owner has not been located), federal law imposes a different obligation on the airlines: They have to pay the flyer a settlement amount. In doing so, the airline effectively purchases the luggage, becoming the legal owner of everything inside the bags.
But airlines aren’t in the business of selling random items like half-used bottles of sunscreen, underwear of every size, evening gowns, jewelry, and a cornucopia of other goods. Besides, it would be bad for business if the airlines—after scanning baggage and at times, manually inspecting the contents—started putting the high-priced items you formerly owned on some e- commerce site. (Imagine the conspiracy theories!) This leaves the airlines with a problem: Tens of thousands of bags become theirs each year, and they can’t sell the stuff inside.
The Unclaimed Baggage Center is the largest and most well known of a handful of intermediaries that help solve this problem. The UBC, as Scottsboro locals call it, buys unclaimed baggage by the pound, sight unseen, from the airlines. (This works well for the airlines because they’re better off having no knowledge of the contents of the unclaimed bags.) The UBC trucks the items from various airlines’ unclaimed baggage depots across the country to the Scottsboro HQ. Workers sort through the contents, and about a third of the items make it onto the shelves in the colossal store.
Another third are donated to charity, and the final third is deemed unfit for sale. (The criteria for being unfit for sale is unknown, but shoppers have noted that partially consumed bottles of lotion are often on the store shelves whereas sex toys rarely, if ever, are.) Most items are for sale at a sizeable discount, and on occasion, a shopper may find a diamond in the rough—literally. The UBC has sold a handful of lost diamond jewelry in its forty-plus-year history.
Bonus Fact: Sometimes, albeit rarely, airlines are better off losing luggage. This was certainly the case regarding a regional flight servicing areas of the Democratic Republic of Congo on August 25, 2010. That day, the contents of one passenger’s carry-on bag resulted in tragedy. According to NBC News, a passenger had snuck a crocodile into a large duffle bag, hoping to sell it at his intended destination. The crocodile got loose, scared the you-know-what out of the flight crew and passengers, and caused the pilot to lose control of the plane. The plane crashed into a house (the residents were thankfully not at home), killing all but one of the twenty-one people onboard. The crocodile survived but was killed by a machete-wielding Congolese shortly thereafter.
From the Archives: Can’t Hardly Wait: A story about baggage claims.
Related: My book, where this article originally ran.
Originally published May 2, 2014
Choppers are now associated mostly with militaries, hospitals, news reporting and other institutional uses. But they were once seriously touted as mass transit vehicles, the original flying car. It all came to an end in 1977, when four passengers were killed in the spectacularly nasty Panam rooftop disaster. Efforts to revive scheduled passenger helicopter service […]
National Geographic’s Travel Photographer of the Year Contest has announced the 2017 winner, and the grand prize went to Sergio Tapiro Velasco for this otherworldly shot of Mexico’s Colima volcano erupting at night.
I had the last official stop of my book tour for my novel Walkaway on Saturday, when I gave a talk and signing at Defcon in Las Vegas. It was the conclusion of four months of near-continuous touring, starting with three weeks of pre-release events; then six weeks of one-city-per-day travel through the US, Canada and the UK, then two months of weekly or twice-weekly events at book fairs, festivals and conferences around the USA.
The Pry.Me Bottle Opener holds tens of thousands of times its own weight, and you can pick one up now from the Boing Boing Store.This remarkable keychain is considerably smaller than any of your keys, but don’t let that fool you: it can easily open any bottle, and could even tow a trailer full of […]
Guaranteeing your privacy online goes way beyond checking the “Do Not Track” option in your browser’s settings. To ensure that your internet activity is totally hidden from Internet Service Providers, advertisers, and other prying eyes, take a look at Windscribe’s VPN protection. It usually costs $7.50 per month, but you can get a 3-year subscription […]
This project management bundle will help you get organized and learn how to lead a team to success. You can pay what you want for these five courses when you pick them up from the Boing Boing Store.To help you become an invaluable asset for your company, this bundle includes a curated collection of professional […]