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U.S. airlines lose 2 million suitcases a year. Where do they end up?


The Transportation Security Administration is predicting a very busy holiday season. Millions of people are now returning home from Thanksgiving trips, and an unlucky few will be returning without their bags. So where do all those lost bags end up? Reporter Melanie Peeples went to find out.

MELANIE PEEPLES: Every suitcase lost by an airline in the United States and not reclaimed by its owner eventually ends up here, at Unclaimed Baggage. It's a huge store that takes up an entire city block in Scottsboro, Ala. Seven thousand new items hit the floor every day.

Oh, David (ph), let me get that one.

And it's all for sale at a big discount. 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 right up these stairs is the jackpot.

SONNI HOOD: The most popular area of the store is the mezzanine. So this is home to our electronics department.

PEEPLES: Sonni Hood first started working here as a teenager.

HOOD: So anything from cellphones and laptops, tablets, headphones - you name it - this is where guests are going to find these items.

PEEPLES: All electronics are wiped clean to remove any personal data. But there's even more interesting things up here - skis, snowboards, a lot of skateboards. Who knew so many people traveled with skateboards?

HOOD: I think this is actually a motor that you connect to a kayak or a canoe of some sort - musical instruments, you know, souvenir items.

PEEPLES: You have to wonder about the stories behind all these things. There's a pole vaulting pole here - maybe carried by an Olympian? There are also the wedding dresses. You have to hope they were lost on the way home.

Is that a saddle?

HOOD: It looks like it. So we have even a horse saddle. Anything that you can think of, someone has likely packed it in their suitcase.

PEEPLES: This is a good time to point out that airlines take up to three months trying to reunite passengers with their bags. In the end, Hood says 99.5% of suitcases do not get lost.

HOOD: Even a fraction of a percent of all lost items is going to accumulate quickly when you consider that millions of people travel every single day.

PEEPLES: So the airlines reimburse their customers, Unclaimed Baggage buys the luggage - they have exclusive contracts - and the contents find a new home in Scottsboro.

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

BRYAN OWENS: And there was an item - 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 this. It said, handle with extreme caution. I'm worth my weight in gold.

PEEPLES: It turns out it was a guidance system for a fighter plane, the F-14 Tomcat.

OWENS: The story that was going around the military was, well, the Iranians stole it. It actually was - it was not the Iranians. It was sitting in our warehouse in Scottsboro, Ala.

PEEPLES: 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 - a centuries-old violin, ancient Egyptian relics, and a suit of armor - they've created a museum. It's definitely a tourist attraction. A million people stop by every year from all 50 states. Of course, some of them are just looking for a more basic item, like Josh Elliott (ph), who came here from Atlanta with a friend.

JOSH ELLIOTT: We found several coats - like, bigger coats. He's about to go to Germany, so we're looking for something particularly, like, warm and fluffy.

PEEPLES: It's his first time at Unclaimed Baggage, and he's not disappointed.

ELLIOTT: This is a lot better than a Goodwill.

PEEPLES: That's because people donate things they no longer want to Goodwill. These are things people like 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 go shopping before they travel. Brands like Rolex and Chanel are regulars here. And let's not forget about the wedding bands. Curiously, a lot more men's than women's rings seem to go missing, but that's a whole different kind of story.

For NPR News, I'm Melanie Peeples in Scottsboro, Ala. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Melanie Peeples

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