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U.S. airlines lose 2 million suitcases a year. Where do they all go?

If it's a Rolex you're after, you're in luck. There are almost always a few available at Unclaimed Baggage. In fact, the most expensive item ever sold here was a platinum Rolex that was appraised for $64,000 and sold for $32,000 in 2014.
Melanie Peeples
/
NPR
If it's a Rolex you're after, you're in luck. There are almost always a few available at Unclaimed Baggage. In fact, the most expensive item ever sold here was a platinum Rolex that was appraised for $64,000 and sold for $32,000 in 2014.

Planning to fly somewhere this week? You are not alone. The Transportation Security Administration expects to screen 30 million people over the Thanksgiving holiday. That's a lot of suitcases for airlines to keep track of, and unfortunately, some are bound to get lost. So where does all that lost luggage end up? In a store called Unclaimed Baggage, in Scottsboro, Ala.

Every suitcase lost by an airline in the United States (and some lost on trains and buses) eventually ends up in this little city about 150 miles northwest of Atlanta, in a 50,000-square-foot building. And it's all for sale. At a big discount.

Unclaimed Baggage is laid out like a regular department store, and not just a bunch of bins in a big warehouse. There is even a formal wear and jewelry department
/ Melanie Peeples
/
NPR
Unclaimed Baggage is laid out like a regular department store, and not just a bunch of bins in a big warehouse. There is even a formal wear and jewelry department

It's laid out like a department store, clothes here, shoes there, shelves of books – because who hasn't accidentally left a book on a plane? But that's not the most exciting part.

"The most popular area of the store is the mezzanine," says Sonni Hood, who first started working for Unclaimed Baggage as a teenager, but is now the public relations manager.

"This is home to our electronics department," she says. "Anything from cell phones and laptops, tablets, headphones, you name it!"

All electronics are wiped clean to remove any personal data, and checked out to make sure they work. The laptops, iPads and Nintendo Switches all sell for around half the price of a new one.

But there are even more interesting things up here. Skis, snowboards, an entire bin of skateboards. (Who knew so many people travel with skateboards? They can't all be Tony Hawk's!) There's a sled, a women's pole vaulting pole and even a Bates Kimberly stock saddle. And brand new riding boots.

The electronics department is always a huge hit. The latest cell phones, ipads, and laptops are priced at about half the cost of new ones. The store's tech department employees wipe all personal data from the items and make sure everything works.
/ Melanie Peeples
/
NPR
The electronics department is always a huge hit. The latest cell phones, ipads, and laptops are priced at about half the cost of new ones. The store's tech department employees wipe all personal data from the items and make sure everything works.

None of it surprises Hood.

"Anything that you can think of, someone has likely packed it in their suitcase."

And, unfortunately, lost it. But don't feel too bad about that. When an airline loses a suitcase for good, they end up compensating the owner for the contents.

Here's how it works: When a suitcase gets lost (or a pole vaulting shipping container) the airline spends up to three months trying to get it back to its owner. But after three months, the airline gives up and reimburses the owner, up to $3,800.

In fact, 99.5% of suitcases checked on airlines do NOT get lost. It's just that the 0.5% that does, adds up to a LOT of stuff. That's where Unclaimed Baggage CEO Bryan Owens comes in. His father started this business in 1970. Owen's father enjoyed listening to ham radios and one day heard a friend in Washington, D.C., say he worked with Trailways and didn't know what to do with all the unclaimed bags they had.

"A little light bulb went off in my dad's head and he's like, 'I think I can help you,'" says Owens.

So he borrowed $300 and a pickup truck and drove up to Washington, D.C., to buy the unclaimed luggage. Then he drove it back home and tried to sell it.

"People were just standing outside the door and in lines and we were open two days a week to begin with, and as the story continues his [dad's] boss told him, 'You gotta figure out which one of us you love the most, your insurance job or your entrepreneurial venture,' and my dad didn't think twice about it."

Owens' mom wasn't so sure about it, but 53 years later, Unclaimed Baggage is one of the top tourist destinations in Alabama. A million people visit every year. They've had someone from every state. Many make an annual pilgrimage here.

Unclaimed Baggage in Scottsboro, Ala., is the only store in the U.S. that sells items travelers left behind.
/ Melanie Peeples
/
NPR
Unclaimed Baggage in Scottsboro, Ala., is the only store in the U.S. that sells items travelers left behind.

It is a rare exception for something lost to make it back to its owner, but Unclaimed Baggage CEO, Bryan Owens, says it has happened.

A man from Atlanta showed up for the annual ski sale (an event so exciting people camp out in the parking lot in order to be first ones inside the door) and he purchased a pair of ski boots for his fiancée. And when he got them home to her, she looked inside and there was her name. She had previously lost them on a ski trip.

Sometimes the shipping containers hold the biggest surprises. Owens remembers peeling back the packing paper of one such container.

"And there was an item on a device inside of there that was, like, suspended by these rubber grommets. So it couldn't touch anything. And it had a placard on it and — I promise you — it said, 'Handle with extreme caution. I'm worth my weight in gold.'"

It turns out it was a guidance system for a fighter plane. The F-14 Tomcat.

"And it was the story that was going around, the military was the Iranians stole it. It actually was not the Iranians – it was sitting in our warehouse in Scottsboro, Alabama."

Owens says they gave that one back to the Navy. And when a camera from a space shuttle showed up, they knew where to find NASA.

Unclaimed Baggage has had so many odd things show up — a centuries-old violin that may have been made by a student of Antonio Stradivari, ancient Egyptian artifacts, and a suit of armor — they've created a museum. There's even a giant puppet named Hoggle, from the movie Labyrinth, that Jim Henson told them they could keep.

Ben Foster of Chattanooga, Tenn., (left) decides what he thinks about the tweed coat his friend Josh Elliott of Atlanta shows him. Elliott had heard about the Unclaimed Baggage store from a friend and was amazed by how organized it is.
/ Melanie Peeples
/
NPR
Ben Foster of Chattanooga, Tenn., (left) decides what he thinks about the tweed coat his friend Josh Elliott of Atlanta shows him. Elliott had heard about the Unclaimed Baggage store from a friend and was amazed by how organized it is.

Most people, though, are drawn here by the easy lure of discount high-end goods: a Louis Vuitton purse, Prada shoes or the hundreds of North Face jackets. Josh Elliott, who lives in Atlanta, made the drive over with a friend. "We found several coats, like bigger coats. He's about to go to Germany. So we're looking for something particularly warm and fluffy."

They aren't disappointed. There are several coats that look like they're fit for an Arctic exploration. It's Elliott's first time here, and he is impressed by how organized it all is.

"This is a lot better than Goodwill," he says.

That's because people donate things they no longer want to Goodwill. Items at Unclaimed Baggage are things people liked so much, they took them on a trip with them.

In fact, a lot of the clothes here still have new tags on them since many people like to go shopping for a new wardrobe before they travel. Or, they shop on vacation. Brands like Rolex and Chanel regularly pass through Unclaimed Baggage. There's a little bit of Hollywood here, too. Aside from the Jim Henson puppet, there's a dress here believed to have once belonged to Marie Osmond. Not to mention, one of this year's Best Director Academy Award winners, Daniel Scheinert, gave his acceptance speech in a tuxedo bought right here.

But it's not just about consumption, reminds owner Bryan Owens.

"It's really like an archaeological dig. You open a bag and you can know what kind of fashions people are wearing, even things like cosmetics or technology, things that they're carrying with them. It really is a cross-section of what's going on in America, and really across the world because the airlines are global."

There is also the plain and simple joy of just imagining the stories behind these items. Was the owner of that pole vaulting pole an Olympian? Did she travel with a spare? I hope the owner of that wedding dress in the formal wear department got lost on the way home from the wedding.

These things will remain a mystery but some are downright mystical. How is it that so many walking aids get left on a plane? Was the traveler cured mid-flight? There's a sizable amount of canes and crutches in a section some employees have taken to calling the "Miraculous Recovery Department."

And let's talk about the jewelry. Judging from the back counter, a lot more MEN'S than WOMEN'S wedding rings seem to go missing. But that's a whole different kind of story.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Melanie Peeples