Millions of bags are lost each year by airlines. What happens to them?

The Unclaimed Baggage Center is a nearly 50,000-square-foot store which has become a tourist attraction to millions of shoppers each year.
Published: Nov. 21, 2022 at 11:56 AM EST|Updated: Nov. 22, 2022 at 11:05 AM EST
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ATLANTA, Ga. (Atlanta News First) - Holiday travel season is here. But people may not be grateful if their luggage gets lost or mishandled on their way to Thanksgiving dinner.

Nearly 1.5 million bags were either lost, late, or damaged by major airlines in the first half of 2022, according to a recent U.S. Department of Transportation report. (1,406,474 bags mishandled for January - June 2022).

That’s more than double the number from the same time frame in 2021. (692,884 bags mishandled for January - June 2021).

When you’re at baggage claim, it’s not hard to find folks who have lost their luggage.

“I was flying back home and when I arrived, that’s when they lost my luggage,” Joe Johnson said.

“I did one time,” Scott Prinzing said. “It was rough.”

The majority of passengers – 99.5% – do get their bags back.

“It ended up taking four days to get our luggage back,” Prinzing added, while Johnson added his wait was three days.

But what about that other half-percent?

Close to one-and-half million bags were either lost, late or damaged by major airlines in the...
Close to one-and-half million bags were either lost, late or damaged by major airlines in the first half of 2022, according to a recent Department of Transportation report.(Rachel Polansky)

Those bags may end up in Scottsboro, Alabama, at the Unclaimed Baggage Center, a nearly 50,000-square-foot store that has become a tourist attraction to more than a million shoppers each year.

“They’re successful 99.5% of the time in reuniting you with your suitcase, but when millions of people travel every day, that fraction of one percent really adds up to a lot of unclaimed bags,” said Jennifer Kritner, the center’s vice president of retail.

Items at the store range from clothing and books to musical instruments and designer handbags.

Verla Dulin visits each year from Ohio on her drive down to Florida. She agreed to open an orphaned suitcase in what the company calls the “baggage experience.”

“This is exciting,” Dulin said, as she opened the suitcase and pulled out a wrinkled men’s business shirt. “This looks good. It’s in good shape,” she added.

Verla did not find any emeralds or rubies – which reportedly has happened before – but she did walk away with what appeared to be a piece of African tribal art, which she found in the suitcase.

Verla Dulin, right, agreed to open an orphaned suitcase in something the company calls the...
Verla Dulin, right, agreed to open an orphaned suitcase in something the company calls the “baggage experience.” On the left is an Unclaimed Baggage Center employee.(Rachel Polansky)

How does a lost suitcase make its way to the Unclaimed Baggage Center? Airlines contracting with the store have 90 days to return the bag back to its rightful owner. If they don’t, the Unclaimed Baggage Center – which has contracts with all major airlines – comes into the picture.

“We have truck drivers that make the trip around the country to pick up unclaimed bags from airlines and we bring them back to our operations facility, where we sort and process these suitcases,” Kritner said.

Each item gets sorted into one of three categories: sell, donate or recycle.

Atlanta News First Investigates wanted to see that part of the process, but the Unclaimed Baggage Center wouldn’t allow access to its operations facility, citing “proprietary reasons.”

Just like that secret area behind the luggage belt at the airport, there are some things we’re just not allowed to see. But here’s what you can do to make sure your belongings don’t wind up in Scottsboro:

  • Make sure your name and contact information is on the inside and outside of your luggage.
  • Some folks even drop a business card in their suitcase.
  • You can also take photos of what you pack.

Better yet, just pack a carry-on.

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