After weeks of blogs that have been mainly political, “Lost Luggage” is purely fun – a welcome break you might say.
It surprised me to learn that 99.5% of airline luggage is not lost completely. Most of lost luggage is found, and eventually returned to its rightful owner within a few days. That, in itself, is amazing when you consider that the US Transportation Security Administration expected to screen over 30 million people, and their luggage, over the recent US Thanksgiving weekend. However, that permanently lost 0.5% amounts to a huge amount of baggage. Where does it all go?
Every suitcase lost by an airline in the United States (and some lost on trains and buses) eventually ends up in the little city of Scottsboro, Alabama, about 150 miles northwest of Atlanta. It is all housed in a 50,000-square-foot building, and every item is for sale at a big discount. The store is called, unimaginatively, Unclaimed Baggage, and it’s been there since 1970. It is one of Alabama’s top tourist destinations with over 1 million visitors a year.
If it’s a Rolex watch 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.
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 available. Skis, snowboards, an entire bin of skateboards. (Who knew so many people travel with skateboards? There’s a sled, a women’s pole vaulting pole and even a Bates Kimberly stock horse saddle. And brand new riding boots. “Anything that you can think of, someone has likely packed it in their suitcase”, says Sonni Hood.
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, or a pole vaulting shipping container, gets lost, 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.
Sometimes the shipping containers hold the biggest surprises. The owner of Unclaimed Baggage remembers peeling back the packing paper of one such container. “And there was an item on a device inside that was suspended by 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 turned out it was a guidance system for an F-14 Tomcat. The owner 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 many odd things show up — a centuries-old violin that may have been made by a student of Antonio Stradivari, ancient Egyptian artefacts, and a suit of armor — that they’ve created a museum to house them. There’s even a giant puppet named Hoggle, from the movie Labyrinth, which the Hollywood film studio told them they could keep.
Ben Foster of Chattanooga, Tennessee, says it’s a lot better than Goodwill donation stores. 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.
“It’s really like an archaeological dig” says the owner. “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 traveller 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 jewellery. 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.
Unclaimed Baggage definitely sounds like a “Bucket List” destination to me. As I said, a fun topic for the blogs this week.