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